Tap, tap, tap … is this thing on? Where was I?
Okay, on our fourth day in London we left the capital for a motor coach tour to Warwick Castle, Stratford-Upon-Avon, and Oxford. We arranged to be picked up at the hotel, which we found out after our second coach tour was a really wise decision. I know what you’re thinking, and yes, we did take a big bus tour despite our history of renting a car or jumping on a train and putting together side trips of our own. After having really good luck in Ireland on a day tour of the Ring of Kerry, and then last year’s multi-day small coach tour to Islay, we had changed our tune when it came to sitting back and letting others do the driving and the deciding.
So … after the driver picked us up at our hotel – the first people of the day – we drove around the area picking up other travelers, and then went over to the Victoria Coach Station where we picked up about half a bus’s worth of fellow travelers. The drive out to Warwick was foggy and cool and I ended up sleeping most of the way. It seems I cannot be in a moving vehicle for any length of time and not want to fall asleep (confession: on the drive home from work I’ve had to stop halfway and take a quick nap in a shopping center parking lot).
An Anglo-Saxon burh was established on the site in 914, with fortifications instigated by Ethelfleda, daughter of Alfred the Great. The burh she established was one of ten that defended Mercia against the marauding Danes. Its position allowed it to dominate the Fosse Way, as well as the river valley, and the crossing over the River Avon. Though the motte to the southwest of the present castle is now called Ethelfleda's Mound, it is in fact part of the later Norman fortifications, and not of Anglo-Saxon origin.
Warwick Castle is a medieval castle developed from an original built by William the Conqueror in 1068. Warwick is the county town of Warwickshire, England, situated on a bend of the River Avon. The original wooden motte-and-bailey castle was rebuilt in stone in the 12th century. During the Hundred Years War, the facade opposite the town was refortified, resulting in one of the most recognizable examples of 14th century military architecture. It was used as a stronghold until the early 17th century, when it was granted to Sir Fulke Greville by James I in 1604. Greville converted it to a country house and it was owned by the Greville family, who became earls of Warwick in 1759, until 1978 when the Tussauds Group bought it.
Over its 950 years of history Warwick Castle has been owned by 36 different individuals, plus four periods as crown property under seven different monarchs. It was the family seat of three separate creations of the Earls of Warwick, and has been a family home for members of the Beaumont, Beauchamp, Neville, Plantagenet, Dudley and Greville families. The first creation of the Earldom specifically included the right of inheritance through the female line, so the castle three times had a woman (or girl) as the owner. Eleven of the owners were under 20 when they inherited, including a girl aged two and a boy aged three. At least three owners died in battle, two were executed and one murdered. Every century except the 21st has seen major building work or adaptations at the castle.
We arrived fairly early in the afternoon on a cold and gloomy day, and were immediately treated to tea in one of the shoppes. We sat with an older gentleman who was visiting with his son and grandsons. I mention him only because he was from Pennsylvania and took great delight in finding out that Alan and I had gone to college there. This is the second trip where we’ve met people from Pennsylvania, and spent time talking to them. Even though we haven’t been there since 2002, we always seem to form bonds with other travelers based on our time there.
I was somewhat nervous about going to Warwick Castle because one recent visitor wrote a pretty scathing review on TripAdvisor, remarking that the owners had turned the castle into a Disney version of itself, which you can get a feel for if you visit its website. I’m happy to report that while there was some of that in evidence, in general its not as overwhelming as you might think given the presentation of the website. Maybe it’s because we were there during the off-season – our preferred time of the year to travel – but we had a really pleasurable morning there. My only complaint is that we were there just a couple of hours too early as they had brought in the giant Christmas trees to be decorated later that afternoon.
Now, I should mention that because we had a lot of ground to travel we didn’t get to spend too much time at either of our three locations on the tour, so after only about an hour we made our way back to the bus for our drive to Stratford and Shakespeare’s birthplace. Touring the house itself is a pretty quick endeavor as it’s not large and there isn’t a whole lot to see, so I don’t know that I’d say going there is worth the effort unless you had a deep and abiding love of Shakespeare (I do). That said, the town itself is very cute and we had an enjoyable hour or so walking around and getting tea. Unfortunately we ordered far too much food at lunch and we were swayed by the ridiculous appearance of one of the biggest scones ever.
Our last stop of the day was Oxford, a town I’ve wanted to visit forever. I have grand visions of taking an intensive multi-week literature course at the University there over the summer from the Department of Continuing Education; an experience I’m even more excited about now having visited Oxford, albeit rather quickly.
The University of Oxford has no known date of foundation, however there is evidence of teaching as far back as 1096, making it the oldest university in the English-speaking world, and the world's second-oldest surviving university. It grew rapidly from 1167 when Henry II banned English students from attending the University of Paris. After disputes between students and Oxford townsfolk in 1209, some academics fled northeast to Cambridge, where they established what became the University of Cambridge. The two "ancient universities" are frequently jointly referred to as "Oxbridge."
Today the University is made up from a variety of institutions, including 38 constituent colleges and a full range of academic departments that are organized into four Divisions. All the colleges are self-governing institutions, each controlling its own membership and with its own internal structure and activities.
Most undergraduate teaching at Oxford is organized around weekly tutorials at the self-governing colleges and halls, supported by classes, lectures, and laboratory work provided by university faculties and departments.
Oxford operates the largest university press in the world and the largest academic library system in the United Kingdom.
Oxford has educated many notable alumni, including 27 Nobel laureates, 26 British Prime Ministers, and many foreign heads of state.
I had hoped, when booking the tour, that seeing Oxford would mean a chance to go into the buildings – the way we did at Warwick and Stratford. Alas, that was not in the agenda for this particular tour. So, rather than sticking with the guide, we decided to wander off on our own and meet up with him at the designated spot in 1 ½ hours. Our first stop was an attempt to get into the Great Hall at Christchurch College, but unfortunately it had been closed for repairs the week before. We did get to see the changing stairwell of Hogwarts though, which was fun, and Christ Church Cathedral, which was beautiful. Our next stop was The Bodleian, the research library at Oxford. A number of books I love have had the library as a central figure in the storyline so I was keen to check it out. Alas, the only way you could go inside was through a paid tour and the next one didn’t leave for another 30 minutes and lasted well past the time when we were supposed to meet up with our group. So basically, we left the group so that we’d be able to go into two buildings that in the end we didn’t go into. We finished up our time wandering through Oxford by shopping at Boots, a pharmacy I’m not ashamed to admit that I’m half in love with.
Alan kept remarking that it looked like a cold and dreary place to study, but I felt the exact opposite. Yes, it was cold outside, and yes most of the buildings are made of stone, but it's gold stone and that lent a warmth to the area that is missing in places like New York, San Francisco, and Paris, for example, during similar weather. Also, you could smell the hearth fires from the various colleges, so I'm sure the students were quite warm and tidy in their lodgings - or maybe that's just my imagination at work because that's my idyllic version of what going to school there would be like for the students.
By the time we were finished it was time to meet up with our group again at the designated meeting point. We walked over there in the dark only to see that we were the only group there. We waited, and waited, and waited some more and still no one came. Having witnessed our bus leaving someone behind in Stratford because they hadn’t shown up at the meeting location on time we became rather panicked. Alan ran around the area looking for our group while I stayed put in case someone should show up. At 10 minutes past the designated meeting time I saw our bus pulling up into the coach parking area near the meeting place. Then I became panicked because there was the bus and there was no sign of Alan. Finally, he joined me again and we walked over to the bus to find that we were the first people to get back at all. So not only were we NOT in danger of being left behind, but everyone was late to boot! Talk about infuriating.
I ended up sleeping for the majority of the ride back to London, which I understand was through a ton of traffic. The bus driver dropped us off a block from our hotel, and we called it a night.