For those who have been to London and want to confront Britain's highways, here are 3 suggestions within easy reach by car. But don't expect to visit them on one trip: distances are deceptive.
Photography by the authors
Americans who have “done London” and are now ready to confront Britain’s highways are going to be sitting on the right and driving on the left. There’s no alternative.
Visitors will find any of our 3 suggestions within easy reach by car, but one at a time. Distances are deceptive: It’s commonly said no part of the United Kingdom is more than 70 miles from the sea, but visitors are sitting in cars not boats! The problem is traffic — especially in summer when schools are out.
The map of England is very roughly a triangle. At each apex (colored red) lie counties or shires so unlike each other they might well be in different countries. In the Jo Edkins map in the top left (North West) is Cumbria, whose Lake District has charmed tourists for 2 centuries.
(In the North East we have already seen a Yorkshire so big it spreads over three counties. We have colored it blue on the Edkins map and put a white dot on the city of York, which we talked about last week.)
Bottom right we have Kent, long called the “Garden of England.” And way over in the bottom left we have the West Country, Cornwall—whose most western point was modestly labeled Land’s End during those days when the British Empire ruled the world.
It’s only 90 miles from London to Stonehenge, but it often can feel a lot longer. The white dot on our map shows the position of Stonehenge. And just another 36 miles farther on, in Yeovilton, stands the magnificent museum to the Fleet Air Arm, the aviation wing of the Royal Navy, the largest naval air collection in Europe.
Tourists need to do their homework before visiting Stonehenge. It used to be very approachable but cultists and hippies once vandalized the monument stones with graffiti. Fences were required for a time but even so the grass around the site sometimes needs protection. Check the website for the time of your visit. The Fleet Air Arm Museum really has no restrictions; you can gaze up in wonder at the first British-built Concorde until your neck hurts.
The West Country is stereotypically England. This corner of England is the last part the Old World emigrants saw as they sailed to the Americas. It’s a land where Atlantic seas crash into granite and slate cliffs on the northern shores, yet, also, where gentle waves roll on to fishing village beaches on the southern side; a place where accents are rough, responses guarded and locals cautious. The village where Doc Martin works as a country doctor on KPBS TV lies in Cornwall!
But that’s maybe too far to go jetlagged on your first day. Perhaps, you should stick to a closer county: Devon of the famed Devonshire cream teas. Your lipids will complain but do it once; the pleasure is almost obscene and you can make up for your weakness by cutting back on the British attempt at high cuisine: fish and chips.
One suggestion is you drive about 125 miles from Stonehenge to North Devon, find the little town of Lynton, check into a hotel and walk its famous coastline along the Exmoor National Park—or, since you are so close to “King Arthur’s Country,” drive 80 miles more to Tintagel.
Tintagel is a contrast between a multitude of tourist-tacky offerings and astonishingly beautiful coastlines. If you can make time, then visit its castle, or at least photograph its old post office as we did.
If you have time you can drive on to Land’s End but there’s not a lot there although a signpost does point in the general direction of New York 3,147 miles away. A better choice as you head back to London would be to stop in the delightful medieval village of Broadhembury, Devon.
Main Street Broadhembury, Drewe Arms Pub
As you near this little village, the roads become unbelievably narrow. The hedges bordering those lanes are deceptive: many are West Country dry-stone walls made centuries ago with sod and rock, covered by wildflowers so profuse that they hide the road signs. Let your car scrape one of these "hedges" and you'll leave a fender in the Old Country. We did that once to the rubber end bumper on a Jaguar’s fender. Embarrassing.
The road sweeps into Broadhembury, a small but architecturally charming village with a population of about 700. There was a settlement here at Hembury Fort as early as 2500 BC, though the people for some reason disappeared about AD 75. The surrounding land was then owned by the church until the Protestant uprising and the Dissolution of the Monasteries in 1539.
In 1603, the Sergeant-at-Law to Queen Elizabeth I built his house on the former abbey farm. The village grew around him in the early 17th century. His descendants, the Drewe family, have thus owned the village for more than 400 years, and the house occupants are their tenants. This explains the conformity, the uniformity of the village, where the walls of each house are impeccably white-washed and the roofs crisply thatched. Each summer, special maintenance crews work for about 3 months to preserve those ancient thatched roofs.
As always in English villages the visitor is surrounded by history. The St. Andrew's church dates from 1259, although changes were made in the 15th century; the tower, for example, was added in 1480. The monks who built the church used chalky flint-stone from nearby Beer and volcanic rock from Thorventon. Before starting on the church, they put up the small cottage now beside it, where they lived, experimenting with their art. If a window was not quite right, they'd use it in the cottage, and the result is a curious mixture of secular and orthodox architecture.
For more history, and a pretty good pub lunch, find the Drewe Arms. Accents may sound a bit different, but they like Americans. Ask in the pub for recommendations if you need a hotel and are not heading back to London direct.
Post office, Broadhembury. A craftsman repairs a thatched roof. It’s almost a lost art.
As you head back to London, time permitting, take the Ring Road round the city to the South East. We’re directing you now to the Garden of England, Kent, rather than proposing a longer haul up to the Lake District in Cumbria.
But this is, for sure, not Texas, where long distances are covered easily. We are not suggesting anyone should attempt to drive to all those different places on one vacation.
The Andersons, who live in San Diego, are the resident travel & cruise columnists for Physician's Money Digest. Nancy is a former nursing educator, Eric a retired MD. The one-time president of the NH Academy of Family Practice, Eric is the only physician in the Society of American Travel Writers. He has also written five books, the last called The Man Who Cried Orange: Stories from a Doctor's Life.