Beyond London: Fancying the Charms (and Stones) of England’s West Country & Bath

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Ah, London; in stepping off the tube at South Kensington, our immediate reaction was to breathe a sigh of relief at the fact that everything is just so much cleaner, slower, and less stress-inducing than it is on the NYC streets we’d left a mere 10 hours prior. Far from judging their work ethic, the sight of fashionable office workers lounging outside a pub at noon makes us wonder why we don’t follow suit. To be sure, there are a lot of things we question in America these days.

The English capital has oft been our final destination when crossing the pond, and certainly there’s no shortage of amusements to be found there. But this time a country road trip was in store; and no sooner had we landed, had a quick look around the V&A, caught Jools Holland at Hampton Court’s summer music series, and discovered the seductive Leighton House Museum, than we were zipping south in a 5-speed rental, and on the ‘other’ side of the road no less. A few days later we would be in Bath, England’s gorgeous Roman-meets-Georgian spa town, where we did indeed take the waters…and then set out to explore several Neolithic ruins, yes Stone’enge included (cue Spinal Tap references).

Here’s what we did.

 

This Charming Town

It’s nice having relatives with 16th century country homes; and ours, whose spectacular abode was down a wooded lane close to the charming hamlet of Liss, lavished us with a delightful garden dinner followed by lashings of homemade limoncello around their enormous ancient fireplace.
The next day we headed south to the sea for bracing walk along the water in West Wittering, stopping first to fortify at the charming Lamb Inn, where local ingredients combine in dishes including summer risotto and south coast fish stew.

 

 

A Stop at the Stonehenge Gift Shop

In preparation for our trip we became fascinated with the history of the ancient stone circles that dot the landscape throughout the Isles, and our southern sojourn put us in the path of many of the imposing structures. The granddaddy of them all is of course Stonehenge, which is truly spectacular, although as one of the more renowned monuments in the world isn’t exactly bereft of tourists…or a gift shop (ok we bought a mug).
Being fascinated by all manner of birds of prey we were thrilled to come across the wonderful Hawk Conservancy Trust in Hampshire, which showcases, houses and rehabs all types of fowl; we had to tear ourselves away from the baby owls, and were soon back on the road to Bath, where we holed up at the charming Abbey Hotel in the center of town.

 

 

Taking the Waters…

Known for its eclectic art collection, which includes a significant cross section of local artists, students from the Bath University and even hotel guests, the Abbey combines modern amenities with typically British charm. Our cozy room had an amazing view of one of the town’s main squares and the imposing Bath Abbey cathedral. There’s also a cool, bohemian cocktail bar on site (fittingly named Artbar), and the well-reviewed Allium restaurant.
The next day we were in full tourist mode and started with a two-hour visit at the spectacular Thermae Bath Spa. While Bath is of course known for its, erm…Roman built baths, modern predilections for health being what they are, actual bathing there is highly regulated; apparently, we lost our tolerance for water-born diseases a few centuries ago. But Thermae is as modern as it gets, while still allowing immersion in the blessed waters; we tried all manner of steam rooms, pools, and relaxation rooms, finishing up with an aromatherapy massage, and then a cider in the Springs Café; delightful, and invigorating.

 

 

And Yet More Stone Circles

That evening we took the advice of a local and headed off the beaten path to The Bell Inn, a cooperatively owned bar and music venue that was gloriously tourist free, we quaffed ciders and marveled at the irony that the bluegrass duo that were playing were from Lawrence, Kansas. On the way back to the Abbey we grabbed an excellent Thai curry at the authentic Salathai; most restaurants were closed by 10 and we’d yet to discover Bath’s late night underground.
Our exploration of stone circles continued the following day with a walk in the fields at Stanton Drew, one of the lesser known sites, and just 15 miles from Bath. We wandered alone among the great boulders, imagining life as a druid centuries ago, then abandoned all pretense of communing with the past and settled in for a couple of pints at the appropriately named The Druid’s Arms. British pubs have come a long way since our dads were downing pints and crisps at the local back in the day. At the nearby Bear & Swan we lunched on a modern take on the Ploughman’s, which included homemade breads, Piccalilli (pickles), and chutneys, as well as a Greek Salad with fried salt and pepper squid; as the area is known for its ciders, we sampled accordingly.

 

 

All Back to London…

Our drive back to London took us past the second most well-known, but largest, henge: the World Heritage Site of Avebury. It’s vastness is humbling, and wandering the breeze-swept lush green lands, one felt the energy of the space as we imagined our ancient relatives might have.
Back in the modern world we managed a rush through the thoroughly magnificent British Museum, and grabbed a final taste of all things British in the form of a scone with jam and clotted cream at the Tea and Tattle across the road. Now, if England can just win the World Cup…