Author: Kirsten Bukager
Date of Trip: July 2014
A family road trip through Central and Southern England, littered with picturesque villages, carrying two skeptical teens in the backseat who would rather have travelled “south to a resort with a lot of young people” may sound like an uphill struggle: Fortunately, our kids survived and will, presumably, travel with us again! Here are some highlights from our trip and a few tips on how to make England a great travel experience for both teens and parents.
I arrived with my husband, our fifteen-and-a-half year old son and twelve-and-a-half year old daughter in Harwich at the end of June. We brought our private car by ferry, but of course it is possible to rent – and safer, as rental cars have right side steering wheels suited for left-hand drive. We drove north of London, through Southern Central England, towards Devon. Then, we drove back along the south coast, heading north from Rye in East Sussex, to return to Harwich from where we took the ferry back to Continental Europe. We had made a rough plan beforehand, but most accommodation – small hotels and B&B’s – was found on our way – with WiFi in most places – to the teens’ delight!
Warner Bros studios and quintessential England
Our sightseeing started with a tour in Warner Bros studios in Watford, where we saw scenery and props from the Harry Potter films: Fascinating, especially for families with older children (it’s not an amusement park, but the real studios). Butterbeer is not recommended, though; it tastes awful!
Later on, in Oxford and Lavenham, we came across buildings that had been used for shooting Potter film scenes, and generally, travelling in England, it’s easy to see how J.C. Rowling was inspired to write her books: Rolling green fairytale landscapes, towns and villages with quirky timber framed houses, narrow cobbled streets, and school children in dark uniforms. Especially in July, when the university towns are teeming with graduates in academic robes and caps, you feel the presence English cultural heritage.
Clovelly – so picturesque there is an entrance fee
Clovelly was not on our the teenagers’ sightseeing list, but it was my time to select an excursion that day. It is not possible to enter this adorable, romantic coastal village in North Devon by car. There is parking outside the visitor centre, where you buy tickets (with audio-guides about Clovelly’s history) before walking the steep cobbled streets through the village. When we arrived, the visitor center was closed for the day, but we could walk down to the beach, where we decided to try to get at table at the Red Lion Hotel Bar Restaurant. At first, we couldn’t find anyone because – we found out – someone had fallen by the waterfall further down the beach, and the restaurant staff was calling for help. During dinner, we watched the rescue helicopter flying in and hoisting the wounded up. In that way, Clovelly was more exciting than expected: To our relief, we heard that it was “only” a broken ankle.
Thrilling tree top experience
Our children couldn’t really care less about pretty villages, and evidently, to make them happy, WiFi in hotels wasn’t always enough. So, one day, we decided to throw ourselves into Tarzan ropes and wires between treetops in Wendover Woods, Buckinghamshire. Truly an adrenaline experience, especially for me who is not that fond of heights! Go Ape Tree Top Adventure can be found in more than twenty places all over England, and it’s not really dangerous, as long as you follow instructions, and it’s actually good fun!
Wild ponies and wartime history in New Forest
On a one-day bike trip in New Forest, a national park in Southern England with heathland, river, forest, and good cycle paths, we came across wild ponies, a special breed originating from and named after New Forest: Reportedly a friendly and calm breed, but since none of us are horses connoisseurs, we kept a distance, and immediately jumped on our bikes when the horses were curious and drew closer. We stayed and rented bikes at Balmer Lawn, a classic country house hotel in New Forest, with swimming pool, spa, gym, and tennis court – perfect for a family with teens. Originally a hunting lodge, the hotel had been used as a hospital during WWI and location of many of General Montgomery and Eisenhower’s meetings as they planned the D-Day invasion in WWII. A good opportunity for at a little history chat with the kids who had already visited world war battlefields in France.
Smugglers and celebrities in Brixham and Rye
In Southern England, we went through the charming towns of Brixham and Devon and Rye in East Sussex. Both towns used to be haunts for smugglers, and as port towns they were important to the Royal Navy for supplies for centuries. Today, Rye is situated 3.2 km inland because of coastline changes over time. Brixham is still a port town, but warships have been replaced by pleasure crafts. The Mermaid In in Rye boasts of having housed smugglers as well as recent times’ celebrities such as Johnny Depp (which our kids found quite cool), whereas Brixham’s most famous visitor was Napoleon Bonaparte, who spent several days on a warship there, before he want sent to St. Helena. We all enjoyed the great sea food and tall tales.
More war stories and European footprints
England is steeped in history, especially European wartime history. Every town and village, we visited, had a memorial pillar with names of the local men who fell in WWI or WWII. And before the world wars there were of course the Napoleon wars, the Roman invasions, the Danish invasions, etc. No wonder if the Brits suffer from Euro-fatigue from time to time! However, not all invasions were just bad, seen in retrospect. For instance, picturesque Bath is a reminiscence of impressive Roman architecture. Visiting these monuments made excellent perspective on our children’s history classes, as long as the parents didn’t get carried away and started to give lectures!
For football fans
The trip was a bit disappointing to the football fans of our family: There are no matches in the summer, and England had just been knocked out of the World Cup in Brazil, so the atmosphere in pubs was rather indifferent. Nevertheless, we had quite a fun auto-guided tour of the Emirates Stadium in London, walking through the press room, visitors’ gallery, changing rooms, the tunnel, and the stadium itself. Even my daughter, who did not understand why on earth we were going to see a football field, said afterwards that she had a good time.
Scandinavian special: Kings, Vikings, and a Lady
It was interesting to us as Danes to see footprints of our ancestors around England: For instance, Cnut the Great (Knud den Store), who ruled England in 1016-1035 and is buried in Winchester Cathedral. Some vikings have no doubt been bullies, like those who beheaded Edmund the Martyr in 869 in Suffolk. Other more recent Danish immigrants have made positive contributions to the country. For example, Lady Ulla Hyde Parker from Copenhagen (1908-1998), who married into the Hyde Parker family. After her husband’s death, the family was faced by a huge payment in inheritance tax, but Lady Ulla saved the family house, Melford Hall in Suffolk, first by transferring the park to the Treasury, and then by opening the hall to the public and making agreements with National Trust (a conservation charity that works to protect historic places in England). Our children stayed in the car with their gadgets, while my husband and I visited the place!
Yes, several things surprised us:
• The road system: English roads are often winding, completely covered by trees, and extremely narrow, many too narrow for oncoming cars to pass each other, except for special crossing-places. Biking is not recommendable (outside national parks): You see nothing because of the giant hedges along the smaller roads, and there are very few bike lanes.
• The food was better than expected. We avoided fish and chips, but we went to both pubs and restaurants, and we had excellent food everywhere. Jamie’s Italian, which we came across in several towns, was one of the children’s favorites.
• The price level was high: Kayak 32£ per person for 2 hours in New Forest (we skipped it); full English breakfast 12£. So, bring a fat wallet or a couple of high limit credit cards!
Towns and villages visited
Our 20 days road trip started in Harwich and went through Wivenhoe, St. Albans, Watford, Wendover, London, Oxford, Burford, Cirencester, Lower Slaughter, Upper Slaughter, Bath, Clovelly, Plymouth, Dartmouth, Brixham, Torquay, New Forest, Shaftesbury, Stonehenge, Winchester, Porthmouth, Lulworth, Bridport, Eastbourne, Rye, Canterbury, Lavenham, Long Melford, and Bury St. Edmunds.
We are a Danish family, living in the Hague area of the Netherlands. We have travelled with our two children in more than 25 countries, starting out with backpacks and a whole lot of diapers!