Disclaimer - this one is a bit long!!!
It’s so easy to not make the most of the travel opportunities right on your doorstep. And who can blame you? – how can you prioritise something when you could do it anytime? It can be pretty difficult, and before you know it you’ve passed the same signs hundreds of times, and there is no longer the lure to visit that particular place or attraction.
But with a little planning and determination, you can recapture the desire to visit places familiar, and how rewarding that can be!
Last weekend a friend came to stay. He's back in Britain after working in America for some months, and he came for a visit. Jet lagged (and a bit hungover!) he was not in the mood for boozy nights out, so we decided to play tourists for the weekend instead.
I have lived in Buckinghamshire for the last year and a half or so. My husband moved here with work, and when I got work I moved to join him. So we decided that Buckinghamshire would be our holiday for the weekend – with the massive bonus that we wouldn’t need to book hotel rooms or make any long journeys.
So first thing on the agenda for any weekend break, dinner! In the small village of Forty Green is a lovely pub, the Royal Standard of England. Evolving from its roots as a Saxon dwelling, this pub has a strong claim as being the oldest in England. The pub has not only starred in TV’s Midsomer Murders, but also on the big-screen as the interior of the village pub in Hot Fuzz. So with that pedigree and its award winning food and drink, plus unique local microbrewery ales, why choose anywhere else?
|In Hot Fuzz|
|The Royal Standard of England, Forty Green|
Also located in Buckinghamshire is Windsor Castle, the oldest and largest occupied castle in the world. Now I am a right sucker for superlatives when it comes to travel, so this ticked enough boxes to be the headline event for Stay-at-Home-Holiday, Day 1. Parking is expensive in Windsor, but going as two friends we were able to split the cost – and it was cheaper than the train (and cheaper than getting a hostel or hotel somewhere).
Considering how awful our weather has been in the UK lately, the day was looking pretty good. Not wanting to waste the rare sunshine, first up we embraced our inner-tourists and took a ride on the open-top City Sightseeing bus. This was also a little expensive, but the commentary was really good to give insight to things that you would otherwise have no clue about – the significance of the riverside train station (built with a Royal Waiting Room for Queen Victoria, and with arches high enough that the Monarch’s escort could ride their horses in to greet her without having to dismount!) or a particular stretch of road (where the World’s first motor car journey took place!).
Although the bus is a little expensive, the tickets are valid for 24 hours. Therefore I would recommend, if you are staying in a place overnight, that you could begin you tour at lunchtime, use the hop-on hop-off facility as much as possible, and then have the following morning to trip out to somewhere as well.
|The Thames at Windsor|
We hopped-off at Eton for a walk around the famous and prestigious Eton College. Given that Eton is famous for providing the very best education to the most privileged boys, it really surprised me to learn that when Eton College was originally founded in 1440 by King Henry VI, it was as a charity school to provide free education to seventy poor boys. A far cry indeed from the Eton of today!
Walking through the town of Eton, we strolled past a tailor’s that we later learned is the traditional tailor to Eton College, making all of the uniforms, and then back on the bus we drove past the town hall which we learned had been attended by Prince Andrew and Sarah Ferguson’s daughters for ballet lessons. (How much valuable trivia for the price of a bus ticket?!)
Back in Windsor we had a quick lunch, keeping the costs down with tea and pasty (and maybe a naughty cake…) before the main event: Windsor Castle
It was great to walk around, and definitely worth another visit (I am very lucky in this respect, as on this visit we discovered that we can get in free with our work ID cards). The staff were extremely knowledgeable and helpful, so you could ask questions wherever you were (This is really excellent if you are not really into those audio guides you can get).
The Castle covers an area of about 5 hectares (13 acres) and contains the magnificent State Apartments, furnished with treasures from the Royal Collection. St George's Chapel, a spectacular and beautiful ecclesiastical building, and the burial place of 10 monarchs (sadly photography is not allowed inside either).
|Windsor Castle (St George's Chapel on the left)|
In addition, which we didn’t visit on this occasion, are Queen Mary's Dolls House, “a masterpiece in miniature”, and the Drawings Gallery which features exhibitions. For more information about visiting Windsor Castle, there are a few websites you can use – these two seemed quite useful:
Being a reasonable train journey away from the Big Smoke, we decided that our touristy day would be only enhanced by a trip to London’s West End. Getting off the tube at Piccadilly Circus you are treated to all the sights you would expect of the West End – the lights, the street performers, the theatres and theatre goers. Even with no booking and a low budget you can enjoy the West End, we simply strolled along absorbing the atmosphere until we were offered a flyer for reduced entry fee into the Soho Comedy Club. Perfect!
The next day was our wild-card day. West Wycombe may not be in quite the same league as London and Windsor Castle on the tourism scale, but if a sign for “Hell Fire Caves” doesn’t capture your imagination then, well…
West Wycombe is an incredibly pretty, Olde Worlde English village. Despite its tiny size, it plays host to not only the caves but also West Wycombe Hill, which dominates the local landscape, topped as it is with an 18th Century mausoleum and St Lawrence's Church – the church in turn is topped with a golden globe which has become a local symbol.
|The Dashwood Mausoleum|
|St Lawrence's Church's Golden Globe|
|Inside - the church ceiling|
|Reference to a Dashwood inside the church|
We parked in the garden centre at the base of the hill, where we fortified ourselves with tea and cake (more cake? Well, we were on holiday…) before walking up the hill to the church. It’s not a massive hill, but the flatness around it means it does command superb views, and with the large town of High Wycombe so nearby it’s amazing how the view is almost all green. You can climb up the church tower for a mere £2 as well, for an even better view. The church is quite Italianate in décor once inside, and as well as commemorative plaques to those souls lost in the World Wars, you can find references throughout to the Dashwoods, the local noble family. Francis Dashwood, 15th Baron le Despencer (who was in fact educated at Eton!) was responsible for both this church and the caves.
|Hell Fire Caves|
|Hell Fire Caves|
The caves are really not much more than tunnels leading underground with some waxwork models and some fake stalactites and stalagmites, but are unusual nonetheless. The reason for their existence seems to vary from account to account, maybe to provide employment to local people during a hard period, or to quarry the chalk for the building of a road, or other reasons… Whatever the reason, they were definitely used for visitors even from the early stages, and also for meeting of the notorious and mysterious Hell Fire Club, with such distinguished members as the Earl of Sandwich, and occasional visits from Benjamin Franklin. The history of it makes for an interesting read though – English eccentricity at its best, and the entry price is not too steep. There’s also a café where you can indulge in more tea and cake…
Also available to visit, though closed when we were there, is West Wycombe Park – a country house built between 1740 and 1800. Originally conceived as a pleasure palace for Francis Dashwood, the mansion is set within an 18th-century landscaped park containing many small temples and follies and is often used in TV and films. And the eccentricity did not die out with the 15th Baron back in the 1700s – in the late 20th century Sir Francis Dashwood (11th Baronet) acquired a huge equestrian sculpture, installed as the focal point of a long tree lined vista from the house. On close inspection, it proves to be a fibre glass prop found at Pinewood Studios, and paid for with 12 bottles of champagne! (Apparently the local Planning Authority was furious, but lost their action to have it removed…)
Amazing what fantastic travel experiences you can have within striking distance of your own home (or a friend’s home of course). I must do it more often!