Cotswolds, Bath and Northern Devon

Thursday, September 06, 2018
Witney, England, United Kingdom
We arrived at Heathrow early on Thursday morning and were fortunate to get an upgrade on the car hire to a brand new Volvo XC60 – a fantastic car with excellent proximity sensors and an amazing reversing video system which really helped in some of the tight places we visited.
Our first stop, on the way to our accommodation, was of course, the Bicester outlets which we had been told were a must. There are lots of designer shops and we bought a few things but you really had to look hard for any real bargain – we’ve been too spoilt by the US outlet malls.
The first two nights were spent in Eynsham Hall near Witney on the edge of the Coltswolds, originally, built in 1706, demolished 1904 and rebuilt in 1906. One of its welcomed attractions was the indoor pool which we used a number of times, and in Witney, had the first of a number of great pub meals at the Boar’s Head. Our two days in the area were spent exploring the Cotswolds which has many pretty villages such as Bourton on Water, Burford and Cirencester but they are very touristy – lots of antique shops but disappointingly, not a lot of original art.
We also visited Blenheim Palace, the historic home of the Dukes of Marlborough, and the birthplace of Winston Churchill. It was a gift to the first Duke, John Churchill, for his victory over the French at Blenheim and became the Churchill’s (later the Spencer-Churchill’s) home for the next 300 years – yes, the family of Diana which means she was related to Winston Churchill. It is unusual as the construction is baroque-style which was popular for only a very short period in England. It is very large and on a substantial land holding which has beautiful gardens as well as an area for horse trials. The interior in decorated in fine period furniture and paintings and includes an exhibition dedicated to Winston Churchill – though no mention of Gallipoli!
From there we travelled to Bath, a beautiful, historic city with magnificent architecture and considered by many as the most beautiful city in the UK. The city is World Heritage listed and dates back to 67 AD when the Romans built a temple and baths at the hot springs although they were used well before that. The city flourished for several hundred years but then fell into decline. It was revitalised with the building of the Royal Crescent between 1767 and 1774, a 150 m curved building of 30 terrace houses built in the Georgian style. One of the interesting things about Bath is that, just like Rome, it is surrounded by seven hills – close enough anyway. The higher areas have not been built on as there are extensive mines in these hills which are consider unsafe for development, which is great for the city.
Our accommodation was in The Windsor Townhouse Hotel right near the centre of town. Bath is a great walking city and we did the 22 km Skyline walk through the surrounding hills overlooking the city. The commercial centre of the city has also been revitalised and there are now many new shops, bars and restaurants.
The community of Bath gets involved in lots of projects and while we were there, there were 82 different models of owls scattered around the city all of which had been sponsored and decorated by city businesses and schools. It was called Minerva’s Owls of Bath trail and is named after Minerva, the Roman goddess of wisdom to whom the Roman Baths temple was dedicated in the 1st century AD, and whose symbol is the all-seeing owl of wisdom. They were to be auctioned in October with the proceeds going to charity.
From Bath, we decided we needed to see coastline so drove to Beer, a historic fishing village on the south coast of Devon. It is small, very pretty and has a number of very good art galleries. We were tempted but thought it was too early and would see more great stuff later in our journey. From Beer, we drove along the coast stopping at Sidmouth, another pretty coastal village, and had planned to stay overnight in Exeter but it is not a particularly attractive place, so drove across Devon to the north coast and eventually found a wonderful guest house in Bideford, The Yeoldon House Hotel, a 10 room former gentlemen’s residence. Another great meal that night at The Seagate Hotel in Appledore, a seaside village next to Bideford.
Next day we drove along the North Devon coast to Bristol. This coastline is heritage listed and is spectacularly diverse with sheer cliffs, sandy bays, rolling hills, and small fishing villages such as Ilfracombe, Barnstaple and Lynton nestled in small inlets. Also, as the terrain is quite hilly you get great panoramic scenery – we thought it was the best scenery we saw while in England.
We had heard and read a lot how Bristol has been revitalised but we found it disappointing – lots of roadworks and not particularly attractive even around the river. Our hotel, the Mercure Grand was shocking despite being very expensive – couldn’t get out fast enough.