As much as we love Europe and our last five weeks in Italy, Dave and I were ready for a change of scenery, food and climate. Due to the colder weather, visiting England in October is not for everyone, but we wanted to explore the England of yesteryear, complete with warm fires and sticky toffee pudding, two things that don’t quite work in the warm weather. Over the course of nine days, we went in search of historical pubs in London, the ancient Roman baths of Bath, the quaint villages of the Cotswolds, and finally, all that is medieval (and haunted) in York.
We started our UK trip in London where we rented a cozy flat in Pimlico through Airbnb. We found this area to be ideal in that it was just outside of the tourist zone, but a short walk to the Tube and a stop or two from the best London has to offer. This being our fourth visit to London, we skipped all the top sites as we’ve seen them numerous times. If you’re visiting London for the first time, however, it’s imperative you visit the Tower of London, Westminster Abbey & Houses of Parliament, Buckingham, Kensington and St. James Palaces, the Royal Mews, Covent Garden, Trafalgar Square and the parks (Kensington, Hyde and St. James). The Portobello Rd market in Nottinghill is interesting too.
With our Oyster cards in hand, we set out to visit some of the historic pubs of London, enjoy anything but Italian food, and find the best sticky toffee pudding in the city.
The Star Tavern (Belgravia): Although not one of the oldest pubs in London, it’s supposedly where the Great Train Robbers hatched their plan to attack the Mail service in 1963. There’s no fireplace here, but the fish and chips were good as was the chicken and leek pie. Sticky toffee was a solid B+.
Argyll Arms (Oxford Circus): The Argyll Arms was built in 1742 but acquired its present Victorian décor in 1897. Although not a standout from historical perspective, this pub is beautiful and cozy.
Ye Olde Cheshire Cheese (The City): Rebuilt in 1667 after the Great Fire, this was a favorite haunt of Dickens. This pub has numerous rooms and nooks to enjoy your pint, some with a fireplace. We had fish and chips and bangers and mash here, both were OK but nothing to write home about. The draw here is the ambience.
The Red Lion (Westminster): The Red Lion stands on the site of a medieval tavern – known in 1434 as the Hopping Hall. The tavern eventually became the Red Lion and was popular with Dickens and Winston Churchill. It was really crowded when we were there so we only stopped for a quick pint. We met some friendly Americans who had just arrived for their first visit to London; they are the owners of The Incense Match and gave us a free sample of their product (thanks!).
Lamb & Flag (Covent Garden): Established in 1623, this pub was once nicknamed the Bucket of Blood due to bare-knuckle boxing that took place here in the early 19th century. There is almost always a crowd out front as the interior of the bar is small and seating is limited.
The Cittie of Yorke (Holborn): Although the current establishment was rebuilt in the 1920s, there have been pubs on this site since 1430. This was our favorite pub. It has so much atmosphere and personality. If you’re lucky, you’ll score one of the little seating nooks to enjoy your pint.
The George Inn (Southwark): The George was rebuilt after a fire in 1676 and served as a coaching inn. The current pub still has the coaching courtyard and the old guest rooms above the pub now serve as a restaurant. There is a lot of outdoor seating here with heaters to keep patrons warm. This pub is loaded with history and has retained much of its original look. There are a lot of pubs called the George in London. Make sure you visit the one in Southwark, across the Thames.
Start at the Star Tavern, (a) The Red Lion, (b) The Lamb & Flag, (c) The Argyll Arms, (d) Cittie of York, (e) Ye Olde Cheshire Cheese, (f) The George Inn.
We had our share of traditional British food (fish and chips, bangers and mash, chicken pie, etc.) but we also found some extraordinary Indian food at Rajdoot and Mango, and a good Austrian place called the Tiroler Hut, complete with live Alpine music. Oh, and we definitely found the best sticky toffee pudding at Hawksmoor between Covent Garden and Seven Dials (there are a number of Hawksmoor restaurants in London; I’m certain the sticky toffee is delicious at all of them).
From London, we took the train to Bath, arriving late in the afternoon. We stayed at the beautiful Francis Hotel, a collection of Georgian townhouses that have been restored and converted to a hotel. The hotel is complete with warped and creaky floors, a beautiful tea room, and an exceptionally kind staff. If you stay here, be sure to look for the blue wall plaques indicating who lived in that house before it was converted to a hotel. After check in, we had LLED (late lunch / early dinner) at The Garricks Head. Here we found the crackling fire we had been longing for, and we stuffed ourselves with roasted chicken, stuffing, and Yorkshire pudding.
Bath is a beautiful town that oozes with a refined charm. The top attraction is the Roman Baths, which is a very well-done museum / ancient Roman ruin. We were impressed by the use of technology that enhances the experience but doesn’t intrude upon or cheapen the history. Despite the number of visitors, it never felt crowded, and it was easy to get up close to the exhibits. Also a bonus – the audio tour is included in your ticket so you don’t have to feel nickel and dimed to get the full experience. And if you’re inclined, there is a free guided tour on the hour.
Other sites worth visiting in Bath are the Abbey, the Pulteney Bridge, the Pump Room (attached to the Baths), and some of the old pubs. We only had one full afternoon in Bath, so we mostly spent our hours wandering the lanes and admiring the village. We did have our morning coffee at Sally Lunn’s, the oldest house in Bath, and of course we treated ourselves to a decadent Sally Lunn Bunn. Be sure to visit the “museum” below to see Sally preparing her famous bunn.
The next morning we collected our rental car and drove north toward York with a few stops in the Cotswolds. After some research we selected Castle Combe, Cirencester, Bourton-on-the-water, and Stow-on-the-wold. As we made our way to Castle Combe, we were convinced our GPS was sending us astray… the road was mostly a single lane, and was challenging when another car met us from the opposite direction. We did arrive in the village (parking is a challenge), and spent about an hour checking out the little cottages, the church and cemetery, and having a pint at the Wadworth pub.
Next stop was Cirencester, the largest town in the Cotswolds which also has the most dining options. We found street parking pretty easily and had lunch at the Crown pub. We were treated to another wood burning fire, and a fabulous lunch of fish and chips, fish pie, and creamy macaroni and cheese. The main attractions in Cirencester are the Town Hall and the Parish Church of St. John the Baptist, the Corinian Museum and the curved Market Place with its pastel colored shops.
Another short drive north brought us to Bourton-on-the-water, a jewel box of a village with a little canal running through its center. We realized here that we were losing daylight and staying too long would risk missing our last stop of Stow-on-the-wold. We spent about 30-minutes walking the narrow lanes and enjoying a quick pint (with a fire!) at the Kingsbridge Inn. Bourton is really lovely and we plan to return to give it a proper visit. The town is also home to a miniature village of Bourton, but it closes early so if you plan to visit, get there before 2:00 PM!
Our last stop in the Cotswolds was Stow-on-the-wold. It was dusk when we arrived and as such, we were going to just do a drive through. Upon arrival, we were so delighted in the main square we decided to park and do a quick walk about and visit one of the pubs (Dave was driving, so no pints for him!).
Three hours later we arrived in York where we would be spending the next two days. We checked in to the Hotel Indigo, which was modern with a nice shower and comfortable bed. Public parking around the corner was just £9 for 24 hours. We arrived after 8:00PM and decided to do a quick walk to the Minster. Along the way we stopped at The Old White Swan, one of the haunted pubs of York, for a late dessert of sticky toffee and profiteroles.
We got our first look at the Minster at night, and its size is disorienting; it’s enormous. We came back in the daylight and it’s even more of a behemoth. We wanted to explore its interior, but what we came to find in York is that you will be charged for everything, including walking through the church. So we took a quick photo and went about checking out some of the other sites.
We paid the fee to visit the Fairfax House, the home of Viscount Fairfax in the 1700s. The home has been restored with period furniture and décor and is really stunning. Photos are not allowed and guides are situated in most of the rooms making it hard to sneak any photos. We also visited Barley Hall, a reconstructed medieval townhouse that was originally built around 1360 by the monks of Nostell Priory. This is a great spot for adults and children as there were a lot of hands-on exhibits throughout the building. There is a fee to enter, but if you plan to visit the Richard III experience, the Henry VII experience and the Jorvik Viking center, you can get a multi-site pass that will save you money. We opted not to visit the Viking Center after doing a walk-by… it looked very much like a Disney ride with a lot of kids. Also, if you plan to visit the Viking center, go online and book your entry in advance. Fast track entries sell out days in advance so definitely plan ahead.
We did visit the Richard III experience, which was small but educational, and the real attraction is the location of the site inside the city walls at Goodramgate. Here you will climb ancient medieval stairs and see a prison cell, complete with toilet! There are also remains of a what is believed to be a soldier who died in a battle during the War of the Roses. If this history interests you, I recommend reading the Sunne in Splendour by Sharon Kay Penman, which is an excellent historical fiction that provides an alternative narration of Richard III that contradicts Shakespeare’s villain.
We also walked to the site of Clifford’s Tower and climbed the steps, only to find it was £6 to enter (we passed). One of the best things about York was navigating the ancient, medieval streets and narrow alleys – the Shambles will convince you you’re in medieval England (or a Harry Potter film), ducking in to the numerous pubs, many of which claim to be haunted, and admiring the preservation and restoration of the timber-framed buildings (one of the best, must-see buildings is the Merchant Adventurers’ Hall, built in 1357).
We went in search of the England of yesteryear, and we found it. We fell in love with England and are excitedly anticipating our return so we can slow down and experience all that this lovely country has to offer.
Up Next: Scotland!