I made my first trip to England in 1980 as part of a group of fifteen traveling with a university history professor as guide. In 1982 I returned with my sister-in-law. The next time I persuaded my husband to come along. Since 1984 I've returned alone every year and find I much prefer the freedom of traveling solo, especially the pleasure of not having to consult a bored companion about what to do next. I please myself.
However, I did have to overcome one major obstacle: Most people believe that a private car is essential to find those off-the-beaten-track treasures that make a trip to England so satisfying. I had to develop another method because I'm too chicken to drive in a network of interchanges and roundabouts while trying to follow a road map that requires constant attention and prevents me from enjoying the lovely countryside. Here's the simple formula that works for me:
My choice last summer was the seaside town of Weymouth overlooking the English Channel on Dorset's southern coast. My B&B was the Channel View on Brunswick Terrace, one of a dozen or so attractive, neat-as-a-pin guest houses standing in a row right on the sea front away from the town's heavy traffic. In the morning I woke up to the sound of the sea right outside my window. In the evening, after a busy day exploring, I could sit on the beach and watch the sun set or walk around Weymouth's picturesque harbor. Weymouth is an ideal choice because its Britrail Station accommodates two different lines leading to two entirely different parts of the country: the Weymouth-London-Waterloo line and the Weymouth-Bristol-Cardiff line.
I stayed in Weymouth for six weeks and didn't begin to exhaust the possibilities. In one direction I had my choice of Poole, Bournemouth, Christchurch, Southampton and Winchester to name just a few of the better known towns on the Weymouth-London line. In the other direction I could travel to Bath or Bristol or any of the smaller towns in between with intriguing names like Maiden Newton, Chetnole, and Yetminster. This is a line that represents the British rural railway at its best. I could reach all of these places, explore at a leisurely pace, return to Weymouth before dark, with only a three- block walk from the station to my B&B.
If I returned too late for the set 6:30 dinner at Channel View I could dine at Hamilton's Restaurant right next door. Hamilton's is a bit up-market in price, but it serves splendid continental meals from 7-10pm. Hamilton's was handy as well on those days when I decided to stay in Weymouth or when my train didn't leave until later in the day. Then I could enjoy a cappuccino and buttered scone, or some other treat while gazing out to sea from one of their pretty white sidewalk tables.
With its wide crescent-shaped bay lined with fine late 18th and early 19th century terraces, Weymouth itself is interesting. George the III made it fashionable when he visited almost every year between 1789 and 1805. Along with many members of his court, he brought his bathing machine and introduced the newly fashionable sport of sea-bathing to Weymouth, and Weymouth has remained popular with British vacationers ever since. They are attracted to its wide, sandy beach and its lovely view of Portland Bill - the narrow, rugged peninsula Thomas Hardy used in so many of his novels and short stories, which he called the "Gibraltar of Wessex." East of the bay sunbathers can see white cliffs that are prettier than those at Dover. The harbor is always busy with colorful commercial fishing and crabbing vessels as well as all sorts of pleasure craft.
Although the big cities like Bath and Bournemouth were fun to visit, I was more intrigued with the smaller towns and villages like Dorchester, Wool, Wareham, Moreton. A favorite is Brockenhurst in the county of Hampshire, just east of Dorset, where ponies have been wandering free since William the Conqueror decreed their freedom to roam in 1079.
By studying guide books while still at home in Los Angeles, I knew that Brockenhurst was in the New Forest, a marvelous place for long walks. My Britrail timetable told me that trains operate frequently throughout the day between Weymouth and Brockenhurst. One warm summer day, I bought a day return ticket (£12) on the 8:53am and arrived in Brockenhurst at 10:01am.
I had expected to see the famous ponies but hadn't expected to see them everywhere, occasionally alone but usually in small groups, sometimes standing under shady trees, other times stretching their necks over fences to nibble something from a cottage garden, or just having a good scratch against a red telephone booth. They seemed to know that no one would interfere with them. I had walked only a few steps when I was delighted to see my first pony, an amiable fellow wandering along in the midst of a group of schoolchildren accepting as his due the occasional pat. A few steps more and I saw a group of fine chestnuts and grays leisurely standing in the middle of the High Street, totally careless of the traffic maneuvering around them.
The street itself was very attractive with pretty shops, tea-rooms and quaint pubs. While shopping for a New Forest guide book in one shop, I noticed a paperback version of the classic novel: Children of the New Forest. A quick perusal showed that the story took place in 1647 during England's Civil Wars and that the action was centered very near Brockenhurst. It was lightweight and easy to slip into my backpack so I bought it for a fun read if I felt like resting while I walked in the forest. Fortified with tea and scones, I set out to find a footpath. Although it wasn't uncomfortably crowded, many other people had come to enjoy walking in the forest just as I. Only I had an advantage; I didn't have to worry about finding a place to park.
I followed two ramblers who looked like they knew where they were going. Within minutes we were in the sheltering woodland and the temperature dropped at least ten degrees. It was cool, green and peaceful with shafts of sunlight illuminating the stony bottom of a slowly moving stream. Butterflies were dancing over the water when two young ponies silently came to drink, and the trees were alive with the sound of rustling birds that only occasionally let themselves be seen. The last of the season's foxgloves were blooming on the banks of the stream.
This magic-seeming land is so vast that regardless of the many walkers I felt I had the forest to myself. When I tired of walking I found a fallen tree could make a welcome seat beside the stream and settled down to read a few chapters from The Children of the New Forest and stayed there for three hours. What a lovely way to spend an afternoon. It was past 3pm when I left the forest and started back to the village. The heat had gained in intensity during my time in the forest's cool interior, and I was happy to find an ice-cream parlor on the High Street. After a reviving pineapple-coconut mousse, I found I had time to explore further.
On the edge of the village I discovered the parish church of Saint Nicholas where a volunteer was on hand in the churchyard to welcome visitors and answer questions. He was happy to point out the ancient Saxon masonry in the south wall, a Tudor window, and the splendid Norman doorway. The vibrant colors in the stained glass windows depicting wild flowers from each season were particularly impressive. The volunteer told me about a footpath just in back of the church that led along a scenic route to Royden House where the naturalist WH Hudson lived while writing Hampshire Days, his book about wildlife in the area.
I was tempted but decided I had just enough time to catch the 5:22pm back to Weymouth. There were many other inviting paths to follow but I could always come back another day. My train pulled into the Weymouth station at 6:40pm and I was back in my cozy room at Channel View five minutes later. After a quick shower and change I went next door to Hamilton's, and as I sipped my gin and tonic and waited for my rack of lamb to be served I studied my train timetables to decide the next day's adventure.
I decided on Portsmouth, the port and naval base on the Hampshire coast. World War II leveled most of the city but the seaport has recovered admirably. The most interesting district is the Old Town where countless naval heroes have embarked to fight England's battles. When I got back that night I felt particularly smug. I had seen the HMS Victory, Nelson's flag ship at the Battle of Trafalgar; The Mary Rose, built for Henry VIII in 1509, and HMS Warrior, the ship that Napoleon described as "a black snake among the rabbits."
The journey to Portsmouth had taken less than two hours each way with an easy change of trains in Southampton. After dinner there was still plenty of time to stroll along the beach as, in June, it doesn't get dark until nearly 10pm. I took my binoculars and watched the ships coming and going across the bay near Portland Bill, then watched a very skilled man on the beach sculpting a battleship out of sand.
Little fairy lights strung along the Esplanade came on as I walked slowly back to Channel View listening to the cry of seagulls as they settled for the night. Back in my room, as I puffed up the pillows on my bed and got ready to enjoy an evening of British TV, I could see the pleasure craft in the bay as the sun was setting. Those aboard seemed to be having a good time - and without a doubt so was I.
Dorchester is the Casterbridge of Thomas Hardy's novels. He lived there for the last half of his life and his home, Max Gate, is nearby on the Wareham Road. His study has been recreated in the County Museum on High West Street. Just across from the museum is the house where the infamous Judge Jeffries sat in judgment on the remains of the Duke of Monmouth's army. Today it's a cozy restaurant.
A short walk down the Roman Road is Maiden Castle, the most massively defended prehistoric earth work in Britain. Just south of the railway station is Maumbury Rings, an amphitheater already centuries old when Romans took it over for games, contests, and gladiatorial combats.
The most interesting part of Poole is the Quay. It was the center of Poole's prosperity in the Middle Ages. There are still ships and boats tied up there. The best part is towards the western end where the Town Cellars - now the Maritime Museum, Custom House, and Harbor Office - are located. This part of town has a real "old world" feeling.
It's possible to take a boat trip around the harbor or to Brownsea Island where Baden Powell started the first Boy Scout meeting. The island is one of the few places in Britain where red squirrels are still plentiful.
Bournemouth is the largest and most stylish town in the county of Dorset. It did not exist until 1810 but has become the main shopping center. There are many elegant shops that appeal to the wealthy who retire there. The Russel-Cotes Art Gallery and Museum was constructed late in the 19th century. It was a private home until 1922 when the Russel-Cotes family donated it to the town. It is richly fitted out with elaborate furniture and treasures brought back from foreign ports. (Don't miss the Lavatories.)
Christchurch has a pretty High Street with Georgian buildings and attractive river frontages to the Stour and Avon rivers. Some say it has the best Medieval church in England. Along the river front it is possible to hire motorboats. The main museum is the Red House on Quay Road where you can see an extensive display of local history, especially toys and dolls, and there's a good costume gallery.
Next to London and York, Bath is the most popular tourist attraction in England, so be prepared for crowds. Right outside the railway station you can hop on a Guide Friday touring double-decker bus that takes you all around the city and points out interesting sites like Plutiney Bridge, The Royal Crescent, The Assembly Rooms, and The Pump Room. You can get off anywhere you like, explore, then catch another Guide Friday and continue on your way.
Bradford is the stop about 20 minutes before you reach Bath. I like it better. It's just as beautiful but tourists seem to be completely absent.
To reach the Isle of Wight you transfer at Brockenhurst to the little shuttle train that takes you to the ferry that goes across the Solent to Yarmouth. Twice on my way there I have seen the QE II anchored nearby. The ferry takes 30 minutes. From Yarmouth you can visit Osborne House, Queen Victoria's favorite residence or Carisbrooke Castle, built by Elizabeth I as a defense against the Spanish Armada.
Enjoy exercise and companionship by joining in one of Britain's many annual walking festivals. Guided walks are held in a compact area over a period of days and are combined with informal side events and activities.
Besides a wealth of general information, the British Tourist Authority website has pages devoted to walking, including routes, maps, events and suggestions on how to make the most of your trip. Sponsored by map-maker Ordnance Survey, the site also provides accommodation options. Each month there is an in-depth look at one of Britain's many fine walking locations. The information caters to all abilities.