The best parts of a vacation can be both those that are well-planned and those that are serendipitous. They say good things often come with the bad, and so it was. I had scheduled a nine day vacation to England and Wales for myself and a friend the end of May, with planned stops in Oxford, Monks Risborough and North Dean (to visit friends), Cirencester as a base for exploring the Cotswolds, and Bath in England; Brecon was to be our base in Wales. Unplanned stops included Blenheim Palace grounds, Kelmscott Manor (home of the artist/designer William Morris as well as Dante Gabriel Rossetti, the pre-Raphaelite artist), picturesque Bibury, and other small villages in the Cotswolds. The surprises were to be found in the planned as well as unplanned stops, a good reason to allow for flexibility in your vacation schedule. Our first surprise was the bad part. Because our airline had overbooked, there were no more seats when we checked in; we would be flown out the next day. So the airline put us up overnight, providing use of the executive lounge the next afternoon and a monetary compensation to boot! That was the good part of the bad. Nonetheless, we were a day short of our precious vacation.
Without a doubt, Wales proved to be the most wonderful and surprising. While I had visited England many times and always loved it, this was my first trip to Wales, the first of many, I hope. Despite the relatively small size of the country, Wales has tremendous appeal whether it be for its long history, magnificent scenery, varied outdoor activities, or its gracious people.
After a night flight from Newark to London Heathrow, we picked up a car and drove to Oxford, thankfully uneventfully, despite having to drive on the left side and negotiating many round-abouts. We checked into our bed and breakfast and immediately left for Monks Risborough in Buckinghamshire, home of our friends, as we had planned to meet for lunch, despite our jet lag. They drove us in their new Jaguar to North Dean where we enjoyed lunch at our friend’s father’s home. The weather was sunny and surprisingly warm for May with flowers in bloom and the countryside stunningly magnificent. Driving back to Monks Risborough where we’d left our car, our friends kindly went the long way back to show us Checquers, the 16th century country house of the Prime Ministers of the United Kingdom since 1921 (Lloyd George was its first resident PM). Its setting at the foot of the Chiltern Hills is spectacular, but set so far back from the road with plenty of low-key security on about 1,000 acres that we could barely see only a part of the grand house. They told us about a public footpath that we could walk on and not get shot. With trepidation, we walked a short distance and took some photos.
The next day we departed Oxford, negotiating our way through more round-abouts to get on one of the main highways to Wales, and checking in to the charming Borderers Guesthouse in the town of Brecon. Gail, the proprietress of The Borderers Guesthouse went out of her way to make us feel at home. From there, we could walk anywhere in this old market town with history dating back to the Iron Age.
The lovely town of Brecon is an ideal base for walks in the Brecon Beacons National Park as well as the many points of interest in town, including remains of an eight acre Roman fort, circa 80 AD, a Norman church from the 11th century, and remains of a castle built within 25 years of 1066. Brecon was recognized with a Royal Charter from King Henry IV in 1411 as an official town. We enjoyed a delicious Sunday roast with relatives of my brother at the Old Ford Inn overlooking the splendid valley a short drive outside town. Bordering the town is the River Usk and the 200-year-old Monmouth and Brecon Canal, a vital pathway for iron and coal during the late 18th century until its abandonment in 1962.
Now, it is a delightful 35-mile-long canal on which we enjoyed a peaceful, languid two-hour long cruise on the Dragonfly, with fascinating commentary by the Welsh captain. Alongside the canal was a wide pathway for bikers, walkers, and the occasional pony or two. An amazing feat of engineering from 1800 was the acqueduct in which the canal crosses the River Usk some 40 feet below.
The departure point for the Dragonfly by the basin of the canal is the entertainment hub of Brecon, Theatr Brycheiniog, hosting such diverse recent fare as Zulu Dance and Drumming, live screenings from the National Theatre and the Royal Ballet, original shows from the National Theatre Wales and many music concerts. Surprising variety to be sure. Check out Theatr Brycheiniog’s offerings during the time you go.
Of course, if you are looking for more outdoor adventures, you needn’t look far. Brecon Golf Club since 1902 has offered a fine nine hole course with outstanding views of the Brecon Beacons, located on the west side of town. The Cradoc Golf Club, just under three miles north-west of town, offers 18 holes and is where the Coors Welsh Tournament of Champions is held. It also boasts a ten-bay floodlit driving range, chipping green, and a fine clubhouse with bar and restaurant.
Cycling is another popular activity, with fine routes for both easy family rides along the canal or challenging mountain bike routes such as the 25 mile Gap circular passing through Llanfynach, Talybont-on-Usk, Aber, and Abercynafon. Don’t worry if you can’t pronounce the Welsh town names. Everyone speaks English and the Welsh people are most happy to help you.
Horseback riding is yet another ideal way to see the countryside and there are riding centers near Brecon that accommodate riders of all ages and abilities.
If you prefer to be on or in the water, canoeing and kayaking on flat water or fast is available and boats, canoes, or day boats can be hired at the basin. Fishing is also available with the requisite licenses available from the Guildhall and various other outlets in town.
Since we had lost our first day planned for Oxford due to the airline’s overbooking and desired to see Oxford, we rearranged our remaining time to allow a day at the end of our visit, cutting back from three to two days our time in the Cotswolds. The comfortable and well-located Corinium Hotel in the old Roman town of Corinium, now called Cirencester, would be our base for exploring the Roman town of Bath and several villages in the charming Cotswolds. We found the Corinium Museum in Cirencester fascinating for anyone with an interest in Roman life in Britain. The town of Cirencester is most pleasant and sufficiently off the beaten tourist track to offer visitors a perfect home base.
From Cirencester, we made day trips to see the amazing ancient Roman excavations in Bath, with lunch at the attractive Ivy Restaurant & Hotel. We also enjoyed the beautiful classical Georgian architecture of the famous Crescent executed in sandstone. The next day we explored the idyllic and picturesque town of Bibury with the famous Bibury Trout Farm and its excellent gift shop.
We stopped at the swank Swan Hotel in Bibury for lunch. Kelmscott Manor was a short drive away and we wanted to see the home of the famous textile designer, artist, and socialist, William Morris, the founder of the Arts and Crafts movement. The Manor also has an excellent gift shop with many items featuring his designs.
There are many other charming villages throughout the Cotswolds, but we decided to route ourselves through Burford and Blenheim Palace in the direction of Oxford, missing Painswick and other quaint villages north and west of Cirencester. Burford was a surprisingly lovely town full of good shops and restaurants. We also routed ourselves via a most unusual ruin of an old Manor House, 15th century Minster Lovell Hall along the River Windrush, which we enjoyed imagining in its better days as something quite special.
Late in the day we visited the grounds of Blenheim Palace, ancestral home of the Dukes of Marlborough, where Winston Churchill was born and lies buried in the nearby churchyard. Over 2,000 magnificent acres of ancient trees, a lake, a miniature train, and both formal and English gardens made for a relaxing and pleasant end to another wonderful day.
Our last day would be spent in Oxford. We fitted in a tour through Balliol College, walked through several college courtyards, viewed a regatta on the Thames, and saw some of the Ashmolean Museum, capped by a delicious lunch in the museum’s terrace restaurant. Our day in Oxford was just enough to give us a taste of this bustling university town along the banks of the Thames River and tempt us to return, to see more of both England and Wales.
Photos by Julie Chateauvert
Top photo: The Thames River, Oxford