Every since I was a young girl, I had visions of spending days, weeks, even months, walking across England. For most of my life, my idea of walking along the many national trails through the English countryside remained very much a dream. Marriage, children, and work prevented fulfillment of this goal and so I postponed it indefinitely – until my recent retirement. Now I have the time, a limited budget, and a passion for walking, plus a lot of ideas.
My first idea was to sign up for a Road Scholar (RS) walking trip. RS used to be known as Elderhostel and until recently was limited to travelers over the age of 50. The organization has since relaxed its rules and now offers intergenerational programs as well as many that appeal to older adults. The trip I chose for my first foray into English walking was purposely moderate in scope because I wanted my husband Darcy to join me on the excursion. He is my marathon man and foremost supporter when I do races, but he prefers to meet me at the finish line rather than participate himself. The trip we selected had to have minimal miles to be covered each day and had to offer a chance to stay back at the hotel to relax if Darcy felt the route would be too onerous on a particular day.
‘Walking the Thames Path’ seemed to fit the bill. What follows is a fairly detailed summary of our experiences, both good and bad. The bottom line – we had a lot of fun but it was a very expensive trip and some things did not turn out as expected.
Day 1 – our plane left Florida at 11:45 am and our neighbor kindly offered to drop us off at the airport so we didn’t have to leave our car for 2 weeks or pay for a taxi. I was incredibly anxious about this trip and I cannot figure out why. I was nervous and worried and excited all at once. Things settled down once we arrived at the airport and checked our bags. We were on our way!
We flew to Atlanta where we had a layover of several hours, so we settled into the Delta Sky Club, munching on treats and trying to relax. Then we made our way to the gate around 5 pm for a 5:45 pm departure. While we were acting like ‘gate lice,’ hanging around waiting to board, the Delta gate agent announced a call for volunteers to take a later flight. Darcy and I looked at each other ; we both had the same thought – we could do that! Our ticketed flight would land us at Heathrow at 7:30 in the morning and we would arrive way too early to check into our hotel at the airport. A later flight would get us there around noon and would be perfect. So we took a chance – we volunteered to take the 9:40 pm redeye flight later that evening. As a result, we each got $750 in Delta dollars and $10 each for meal vouchers. That was a good deal!
Day 2 – The flight was long, 7 plus hours, but smooth and uneventful. I slept fitfully. We were served a wake-up breakfast before landing and then we disembarked, made our way through Customs, found our luggage (we each had checked a huge bag packed with enough clothes to last us 2 weeks), and managed to find the Hilton Hotel at terminal 4, just a short walk from the Delta gates. Heathrow is huge! It’s also very confusing, especially to newcomers. We found the hotel without a problem but there was not much around the hotel except parking lots – but we were there to sleep not explore. We checked in and received an upgrade to the executive floor and lounge. Wonderful! We did our best to stay up until at least 7 pm. There was a restaurant in the Hilton that had sandwiches and drinks so we ate an early lunch, watched some television, visited the lounge for a snack supper and a glass of wine, and then went to sleep.
Day 3 – I had arranged for us to meet the RS driver at the airport at 7 am so we had to rise early and take the shuttle from our hotel to terminal 5. Once there, we discovered that the incoming flight from Chicago with 2 other RS participants had been delayed for over 2 hours. That meant we had to stand and wait, keeping an eye out for the RS driver. Finally, Darcy located the driver, the other people arrived, and we all piled into a waiting car, bags and all.
The trip to Oxford, our home for the next week, took about an hour. We arrived at the Oxford Spires 4 Pillars Hotel at mid-morning but our room wasn’t ready yet so we stored our luggage and went for a walk with Roy, one of our tour guides, to Folly Bridge and into downtown Oxford. Roy showed us Blackwell’s bookstore and I went a little crazy buying maps and books. We then headed back to a buffet lunch at the hotel. After lunch, we were able to check in; our room was fairly spacious, very clean, and overlooked a meadow (some rooms looked out on the busy front street or the parking lot, so we were lucky). Then we walked in the other direction to Iffley, a small picturesque village on the Thames, where we stopped in at St. Mary’s church, originally built in the 12th century but restored during more recent periods, It had several lovely stained glass windows. We also explored Iffley Lock, the first of many many locks we were to see during this visit. Both the walks – to Oxford and to Iffley – took us along the Thames River, with narrow houseboats docked at the banks and university students rowing their boats. Dinner was served at 6:30; my entree was a bit disappointing (my cod was bland) but the appetizer (Halloumi cheese) and dessert (rhubarb crunch) were tasty.
The evening ended with a talk by Bill Leonard, author and guide, about Oxford past and present. Highlights follow: (I had to take notes so I wouldn’t fall asleep; he was not at all boring but 8 is past my bedtime)
• weirs control the river – the locks are for boats
• the college rowing races begin at Iffley; the church there is one of the finest examples of Norman churches; it is noted for its ‘anchoress’ (Annora), a recluse who lived in a small room (cell) beside the church and devoted herself to prayer
• Christ Church is one of 38 separate colleges that make up Oxford University; the college was begun by Cardinal Woolsey
• Exams have just ended and we might see students wearing white carnations (which means they have just taken their first papers), pink (midterms), or red (finals)
• along the Thames we might see gun emplacements known as ‘pill boxes’ – these were barriers made by townspeople during World War; it turns out that we did see quite a few of these along the river
And so we reached the end of our first ‘official’ day.
Day 4 – After breakfast in our hotel, we left as a group to walk into Oxford where one of the Christ Church College custodians gave us a guided tour of the college. We walked around the magnificent quadrangle which is dominated by a bell tower designed by Sir Christopher Wren. Distinguished college alumni include William Penn, John Wesley, Lewis Carroll, and W. H. Auden, as well as 13 British prime ministers. We had lunch in the Great Hall where King Charles I held his Parliament during the English Civil War and where the Harry Potter films were made. The meal was cafeteria style and students were eating there along with tourists like us.
In the afternoon, we were on our own. We decided to go back downtown to shop, hitting Blackwell’s once more and several other stores, including the Varsity Shop where both Darcy and I bought Oxford University tee shirts, and Hotel Chocolat where we both indulged in some decadent dark chocolate treats. In retrospect, we should have used this afternoon to visit several of the town’s museums, since our next free afternoon in Oxford was Monday and all the museums were closed. But at the time we were unaware of that fact and so we indulged in shopping. The evening meal was on our own (we were ‘free agents’ in RS parlance) so we stopped at Tedesco’s market and bought a bottle of wine and some snacks – red wine and chocolate turned out to be a great supper.
Before I go with the story of our trip, I should introduce the other members of our group. Overall, they were decent sorts. Four were or had been clergy. One of them (Dina) also had an advanced degree in music and sang opera and then went to medical school to become a radiation oncologist. She was most kind and extremely interesting. Her husband Jim had studied to become a Jesuit priest but left to marry Dina; he was exceptionally funny and I enjoyed sitting near him during meals because of his humorous commentary.
Marilyn and John were ministers from Colorado and friends of Dina and Jim. Kate was a retired documents librarian from UC/Davis and Pat was a retired librarian from University of Houston @ Clear Lake. Funny how there were 3 of us librarians on the trip. There is always someone on these trips whose avocation is botany and on this trip it was Kate (although Pat also was a flower and garden aficionado). For both Kate and Pat, this RS trip was the middle of several other jaunts they were on, some with English groups and some solo.
The general tenor of this trip was laid back and casual. While the emphasis was supposed to be on walking, it was really more like sauntering or strolling. Few could maintain my pace and most preferred to take their time getting from place to place. It was a bit frustrating for me, but it was definitely good for Darcy since he was often ahead of many of them.
Day 5 – We ate breakfast at the hotel and then boarded a coach for the 30 minute drive to Radcot Bridge, built in the 12th century. We then proceeded to walk about 3 miles along the Thames to the attractive village of Kelmscott, passing by Grafton Lock, and then had a delicious lunch of soup and bread at the Plough Inn. We ended up at Kelmscott Manor, home of designer, craftsman, and socialist William Morris (died 1896). Morris, one of the founders of the Arts and Crafts Movement, had a distinctive style and some of his designs are still in use today. This was the only day it rained heavily. We waited out most of the rain in the shelter of the Manor buildings but our afternoon walk to the town of Lechlade-on-Thames was fairly soggy. We stopped at a pub for a pint while we waited for our return bus trip back to the hotel. Dinner was at the hotel and I chose the vegetarian entrée this evening – eggplant pasta, along with the rhubarb crunch for dessert.
Day 6 – After an early breakfast we left at 9 for a ride to Henley-on-Thames, home of the Henley Royal Regatta , first held in 1829. Here we visited the River & Rowing Museum; I wasn’t particularly crazy about seeing this museum since I am not especially intrigued by boats and rowing, but I enjoyed the special exhibition on The Wind in the Willows (I enjoyed this book as a child and later bought a beautifully illustrated hardcover edition on Amazon for $5). Lunch was in the museum cafeteria – a mundane affair except that I had the chance to try ginger beer (strong on the ginger flavor, absent on the alcohol). After lunch, we walked about 6 miles to Hurley Lock, passing Medmenham Abbey (home of the Hellfire Club). The weather was pleasant and when we arrived at Hurley we sat outside and enjoyed a cream tea on picnic benches. We returned to Oxford by coach at 5 pm. Dinner was at 7 and was eminently forgettable.
Day 7 – This day began with promise: we walked to Folly Bridge where we boarded a launch for a 2 hour cruise on the Thames. It was a gentle ride and fun to see the river from the very different perspective of being ON the river. Lunch was at the hotel, a simple buffet offering. After lunch we were on our own, free agents once again, although our 2 guides were going for a walk to the Trout Inn at Godstow Lock, 4 mile away. Darcy and I decided not to go on this walk – we weren’t especially taken with the idea of drinking and then walking back – and it turns out the pub was not very good so we made a wise decision. We instead spent the day in Oxford with the intent of visiting some museums. Unfortunately the museums were closed (it was Monday) and the city itself was teeming with people. We did visit the Bate Museum of Musical Instruments but it turned out that the day was mostly wasted. I did very little walking and felt frustrated. We bought another bottle of wine; dinner at the hotel was mediocre but I was still pretty full from lunch. I had a hard time getting to sleep. I was beginning to get tired of eating at such a late hour than usual for me and we never finished our meal before 9 pm.
Day 8 – This morning we rode on the coach to Sutton Courtenay to begin a 7 mile walk to Dorchester-on-Thames. I found this day to be much better than yesterday. We visited the gravesite of Eric Blair (George Orwell) and then began our walk to the picturesque village of Clifton Hampden. We ate a packed lunch on the path. As we ate, we watched a wedge of swans fly over us, a thrilling site. Towards the end of our walk we took a short but very steep detour to the Wittenham Clumps, site of an Iron Age hill fort. At last we were doing some major walking! At 4 pm we met the coach at Dorchester for the drive back to Oxford. After a special menu dinner (better than usual), we retired to our rooms to pack for the transfer to Richmond the next day. Darcy and I packed up our suitcases and got everything ready in advance so we’d be prepared for the transfer.
Day 9 – We brought our suitcases downstairs right after breakfast, loaded them on the coach, and settled our bill with the hotel. Then we all set off for Runnymede Meadow, an hour’s drive, where we visited the memorial site where King John signed the Magna Carta in 1215. We stood on the acre of land within the meadow that was given to the USA in perpetuity and we paid homage to the John F. Kennedy Memorial which stands on the site.
Then it was time for the pleasant 6 mile walk to Windsor. We passed the ‘Copper Horse’ statue of George III on horseback that stands before the regal Long Walk to Windsor Castle. It is here, surrounded by horse chestnuts and plane trees, that we stopped to eat our packed lunch. As we ate, we watched a cavalcade of horses and cars proceed down the road and – to our surprise – watched as Queen Elizabeth, ensconced inside one of the cars, along with her entourage, left the castle on her way to Ascot. It surprised me that so few people were congregating around her (and as far as I could tell, there was very little security also, although I may have missed the more subtle British equivalents of our Secret Service). Of course, we had to visit the castle, including Queen Mary’s dolls’ house, the kitchen and scullery, and state apartments. Our motor coach picked us up at 5 and we rode for 45 minutes to our hotel in Richmond-on-Thames, the Richmond Hill Hotel.
We checked in and unpacked. Our hotel was originally a Georgian house built in 1726; in the early decades of the 19th century, three additional houses were incorporated into the building and several more wings were added in the 1880’s. It became the Richmond Hill Hotel in 1913. In 1939, the British army requisitioned the hotel to use as barracks for its regiments and David Niven was one of its denizens. The rooms were very small and spartan but had all the essentials. The floors creaked and we got lost trying to find our way through the maze of corridors, but the hotel definitely had a certain charm. Probably the best thing about the hotel was its location. Right across the street was a beautiful view of the Thames in a bucolic setting. Downtown Richmond was a short walk to the north. South of the hotel was Richmond Park, 2500 acres of woodland and grassland, with deer and rabbits and parakeets.
The major negative at this hotel was the food. While breakfasts were the traditional full English fare (eggs, sausages, bacon, potatoes, blood pudding, baked beans, toast, cheese, pastries, etc.) just as in Oxford, our dinners were barely edible. In fact, Darcy and I chose to eat at a nearby pub, the Roebuck, for several of our meals. We found ourselves becoming regulars at this pub, and soon the servers recognized us and we quickly learned which of the many excellent beers were our favorites.
Day 10 – On this morning we rode in a coach to Hampton Court, about 30 minutes from Richmond. Darcy decided to stay at the hotel; he had developed 2 bad blisters on his heels and was having difficulty walking any major distance. We kept in touch by texting each other. It was probably a good idea for him to stay behind because we did quite a bit of walking around the palace and gardens, up and down stairs, and along the maze. We had lunch at Tiltyard Café on the grounds of the palace and then walked the 6 miles back along the Thames to Richmond. It was a long but exhilarating day and I enjoyed it. For dinner, Darcy and I ate at ‘our’ pub.
Day 11 – This also turned out to be a favorite day for me. We started early in the morning to walk the 3 miles to Kew Gardens. Once there, we had a knowledgeable guide give us an extensive tour of the grounds – highlights included the treetop walkway and Kew Palace. After the tour we were on our own. I stopped for lunch at the Orangery Restaurant where I had a Bakewell Tart and Sicilian lemonade. Since Darcy’s blisters were still bothering him, he had taken this day off as well. Everyone else took the bus back to Richmond but I retraced my steps along the Thames Path to get another 3 miles of walking in. One of my concerns was the tide. From Richmond on to London, the Thames is subject to tides and walking along the southern side is sometimes flooded during high tide. The tide was out during our morning walk but had risen quite a bit on my return trip but fortunately I made it back in time. Dinner once again was at our pub.
Day 12– I now became acutely aware that our vacation was drawing to a close. We only had two more days left but they were filled with activity. It had rained Friday night and Saturday morning but by the time we left for the 40 minute ride to the Tower of London, the weather had cleared. This was a confusing day. We were dropped off at the Tower and people disappeared to do their own thing. In Oxford and Richmond, we had been given maps in our packets to help us find our way around but here in London, a confusing city, we were left without any guidance. Since Darcy had never been to the Tower before, we made that a priority and then purchased a London map to figure out the many bridges and sights.
We were supposed to meet for lunch (although the actual meal was on our own) but that too seemed more confusing than helpful. Darcy and I and a few others in our group opted for a light lunch at Southwark Cathedral tea room. Afterwards we had the services of an excellent Blue Badge London guide, Myra, who led us on a walking tour of the south bank of the Thames in London. We passed by many sights, including the HMS Belfast, the Globe Theatre, the Tate Modern, the Millennium Bridge, the London Eye, Cleopatra’s Needle, the Victoria Embankment, the Houses of Parliament, Buckingham Palace, and Westminster Abbey. We returned by coach to Richmond, exhausted. Darcy and I skipped dinner at the hotel so we could have a final meal at our pub.
Day 13 – I was up early this morning to walk through the Deer Park. Yesterday I had met a man out walking his dog and this gentleman told me exactly how to enter the park – today I followed his instructions. I was rewarded by a beautiful quiet bucolic morning, surrounded by deer, birds, rabbits, and later in the morning lots of cyclist and runners. I was back by 8 am so I could join our group as we were driven by coach to Westminster Pier. Once there we boarded a river boat to take us to the Thames Barrier, the world’s largest movable flood barrier that was specifically designed to protect London from flooding if there were to be a destructive North Sea tidal surge.
We left the cruise at Greenwich where we spent the better part of the afternoon. Since it was nearing lunchtime, Darcy and I looked at the gastronomic possibilities and settled on a local tavern, the King’s Arms, where I ordered tea and fish and chips. Darcy had his favorite bangers and mash. After eating our fill, we walked through Greenwich Park and up the steep hill to the Old Royal Observatory. We paid the admission fee to allow us to stand on the Prime Meridian and visit Flamsteed House (John Flamsteed was the First Astronomer Royal) where I learned more than I ever wanted to know about measuring longitude. Afterwards, we walked through the National Maritime Museum, stopped for some fresh cookies from a local bakery, and waited for our coach to arrive for the return to Richmond.
It was time to pack for our return home, but first we had our final meal as a group. This time we ordered off a special menu and the food, if not glorious, was at least recognizable and appealing. Dina and Jim had bought a few bottles of good red wine that they shared with all of us and we were in a jolly mood as we said our good-byes. Except for me – I was sad at having to leave England.
Day 14 – Our plane was due to leave around 9:40 in the morning, so we had to be ready early – very early! At 5 am we were loading our suitcases into the motor coach and saying farewell to Roy. The trip to Heathrow was uneventful and we found the Delta ticket counter, checked our bags, and began the long 7 ½ hour journey to Boston, then Atlanta, and then home. Our last plane was delayed due to bad storms in the Midwest but we finally arrived about 10 pm. Our neighbor was kind enough to meet us and ferry us home, despite the late hour. It took me several days to overcome jet lag and feel somewhat normal again. On the whole, it was a very successful trip.
A few notes:
• It felt funny to travel without doing a race; I felt like I was missing something
• Our guides were good but not great; Roy was very affable and friendly but it was hard to understand his Manchester accent; Geoff was distant but approachable; neither offered a lot of information about the sights we were seeing (though they had some funny stories to tell) and since RS emphasizes the educational aspect of its tours, I was a bit surprised about that lack of expertise
• The guides also seemed somewhat confused at times about the actual paths we were to take; a few times we had to turn around and reverse our steps
• I didn’t care for the late (for me) dinner hours, the late breakfast hours, and the constant feeling that I had to socialize and make small talk with other members of the group; it was just hard to be constantly ‘on’ (the bane of being an introvert, I guess)
• We took way too much stuff in too big a suitcase; next time I would take less in a smaller bag and make everything do double duty. I did wear most of what I took, but I could have made do with less