I knew that traveling through the UK in July was not going to afford me the sun-drenched, beach-friendly holiday that you might otherwise associate with a summer in Europe, but I think I now have a particular appreciation for the frustration that is English summers. It’s not often genuinely cold and even though I’ve been lucky enough to avoid a lot of rain, it is perpetually overcast. In reality, it’s great weather for hiking and walking around and sightseeing, but it doesn’t feel very summery. What is perhaps most frustrating is that when those rare moments of sunshine happen, it is absolutely spectacular. A truly sunny day in the English or Scottish countryside is unlike anything else, perhaps because you’re aware of just how rare and fleeting it is. Because of that, the idea of beach towns in England has always seemed odd to me, but we’ll start in Brighton anyway.
London—Brighton, 53 miles
If you’ve ever wondered what would happen if you crossed Coney Island with Victorian England, allow Brighton to demonstrate. This is a pretty bizarre little city but it makes its quirks work. Similar to Bath, my next stop, Brighton is one of the many cities near London that became a fashionable resort town for the aristocracy in the 18th century and the waterfront area bears the strongest marks of this era. Brighton is actually really two cities—Brighton and neighboring Hove—and the whole stretch along the coast is one Georgian building after another, broken up here and there by enormous courtyards. A certain shabbiness has definitely settled over the area now, with vaguely creepy hotels and tired storefronts now occupying most of the historic properties.
Brighton’s bizarre persona is perhaps best seen in the Brighton Pier, the city’s most iconic landmark. The whole thing was built as part of the 19th-century craze during Brighton’s heyday and it was supposed to be the anchor for high-society entertainment in the city. Today, it is unspeakably gross. Like all “pleasure piers” everywhere, the smell of funnel cakes and corn dogs hangs with a kind of saccharine thickness in the air that even the always blustery Brighton weather can’t dispel. Carnies are everywhere. It’s the kind of place where your shoes are always sticking to the floor boards and you don’t even want to sit on the benches, coated as they are in a mélange of seagull poop, congealed whipped cream, and French fry grease.
The old architecture along the water, which you can also see in the restored Bandstand, is part of what makes the city cool, but the pier is in such a dilapidated state that you almost wish the sea would wash it away and take the dozens of slot machines and cotton candy machines along with it. There’s a bit of romance still left in the restored 19th-century bandstand further down the boardwalk, which now sits in the shadow of the about-to-open, stupidly named British Airways i360, a ridiculously tall observation tower. Considering that the coast is often covered in a thick, low-hanging fog, rarely will being a few hundred feet in the air afford you a great view.
I wanted Brighton Pier to be something interesting. Underneath all the grime you can sense that there is still a charm to it. The cheesiness of it all is part of the attraction, but it’s being drowned out by the sounds of whizzing slot machines and the blaring tones of T-Pain blasting through the outdoor speakers. No one is expecting a five-piece band to be entertaining a crowd at an amusement park in 2016, but I found myself wishing they’d held onto a little bit more of their old-school style. This is the kind of place where you can buy homemade saltwater taffy on every corner, and where nautical themed items are deployed without irony. It’s too bad the pier has completely gone the way of a bad state fair. The nearby boardwalks are much of the same.
In stark contrast to the kitsch of the beachfront area is the macabre West Pier. What used to be the complement to Brighton Pier was abandoned in 1975 and has fallen into a state of disrepair that seems far worse than you might expect after 50 years. An arson attack in 2003 definitely didn’t help and despite all this talk about restoring it, it’s still just sitting there today as a charred skeleton of a pier in the middle of the water, like some sort of visual “Ozymandias” metaphor.
Luckily, Brighton is saved by The Lanes. There’s a bit of an edge to Brighton, in a good way, and the part of town away from the water has this kind of watered down rock ‘n’ roll thing happening that’s like an anthropomorphization (it is a word) of Keith Richards; aging and benign, but still badass.
Between the nondescript commercial boulevards are series of winding alleyways and pedestrian streets with boutiques, shabby-chic tea parlors, record stores, and vintage shops, mostly notably Snoopers Paradise. A true junk heap if ever one has existed, Snoopers is such an unbelievable mess of crap you could grow old just taking stock of all they have. Most yard sales have more organization than this place. I saw boxes of old CDs and clothes that look like they had been dropped there by someone who donated them 10 years ago, and the salespeople had just decided to leave it. Of course, this makes browsing a series of endlessly entertaining discoveries and when the weather is bad, as it so often is, this is a great place to pass the time.
Surrounding Brighton and stretching east along the coast is South Downs National Park, which has the distinction of being a brand-new national park. Its most distinctive feature is the Seven Sisters Cliffs, or what I like to think of as the thinking man’s Cliffs of Dover. Visually, they are shockingly identical; you would be hard-pressed to tell them apart in a photo and the Seven Sisters are much less crowded. As far as hiking in this area goes, they pretty much just turn you loose to wander around wherever and post lots of signs about all the ways you can die—being washed out to sea, falling off the cliff, etc. The fact that it’s such a free-for-all is actually really nice because it means you can spend an afternoon here without sitting on top of other people, unless you get those creeps who are the kind of people who take the seat next to you in an empty movie theater.
But Brighton’s finest hour is, in fact, an hour. Because the clouds here tend to hang so low and move so quickly, the sunsets you get in Brighton are really spectacular. There’s a kind of aura you get from it that makes the city glow. This does sound a bit ridiculous—literally every city has sunsets. Brighton’s though have a particular hue to them, a shade of golden yellow that reflects brilliantly off the cream-colored townhouses along the beach, and the effect is pretty unique.
Tourism is very much a part of Brighton’s history and there’s something charming about the wholesome, Breton-stripes-on-the-boardwalk aesthetic that I wish they did a better job of maintaining. When I think of Brighton, even after having been there, I instantly think of 1940’s style one-piece swimsuits, fish and chips wrapped in newspaper, and the incessant squawking of seagulls and though that’s a highly sentimentalized, cheesy image, it’s still appealing.
The thing you immediately notice about Brighton is how many bachelorette parties there are. Something about the city is inherently very mid-century and every hen party completely relishes this spirit, going full Betty Draper for their big night out. I like this unofficial tradition that Brighton seems to have. Aside from being very entertaining, there’s a cinematic charm to watching groups of women dressed like 1950’s sitcom mothers running into the frigid ocean and then back out shrieking, all while wielding a bottle of cheap champagne. It would feel performative anywhere else, but there is a genuine whimsy in Brighton that makes all its rough edges and tired buildings seem quaint. Nostalgic is the best word I can think of to describe Brighton. It’s hardly a blighted city, but it’s long past its heyday. Not so long past that you can’t see what made it great.
Brighton—Bath, 162 miles
If Brighton was the recreational city for the late Victorians, Bath has been the go-to site for aristocratic lounging since the Romans. At the risk of stating the obvious, the name does come from the nearly 2,000-year-old Roman baths in the middle of the city. Originally named Aquae Sulis (Sulis being a Celtic god), Bath came under the control of the Romans in 60 AD, who have since made it famous for its natural hot springs and transformed it into the fashionable city it’s been for hundreds of years. Jane Austen is the unofficial patron saint of the city; she lived here for a few years and the city makes multiple appearances in her novels, notably for its vapid social scene and its appeal among flighty women who go to “take the waters” and such.
It’s no less interesting today. If you come to Bath on a day trip, as everyone does (including me on my first visit), it feels a bit like a toy town. You have the central Roman square with the abbey and the baths, the scenic river front promenade, and the Royal Crescent and The Circus, two famous areas with beautiful Georgian homes. And you’ve “seen” Bath.
What I was pleasantly surprised to find this time around is how much is going on that doesn’t reveal itself at first. As with all popular day-tripper cities, it becomes a totally different place after 5 p.m. when all the buses head back to London. No one would accuse Bath of having a vibrant nightlife, but there are some great restaurants and bars for a town that can in certain areas feel like it’s frozen in time. The whole city is a UNESCO site and as it’s a popular town with an affluent population, the buildings have been immaculately maintained, especially impressive considering that some date back to Roman times. Next to the baths is Bath Abbey, one of the city’s newer structures with foundations from the seventh century.
The Baths themselves are the main attraction and it’s worth overnighting in the city to be able to visit during slow times. If you go in the late afternoon just before closing time, it’s surprisingly empty. The Baths do that thing of setting up a giant exhibit before you actually get to the main bath, so while you’re reading the placards you’re constantly thinking about when you’re going to see the famous courtyard. The first time I visited, I will admit, I blew right past the whole thing and onto the baths themselves, which are really the most important part.
I go back and forth on the value of reading all sorts of information placards. Having context and an understanding of what you’re looking at is important, but sometimes it’s nice to just look at something without a bunch of facts and figures trying to explain every paving stone and column topper. That said, the exhibit at the baths is pretty interesting and they have some old Roman artifacts and statues that are worth pausing over.
These baths are not still open, obviously, but you can still revel in the natural hot springs at the Thermae Bath Spa nearby. For a “spa,” there’s a bit of a factory feel to it—more like an upscale public pool—and the rooftop will be packed no matter what, but it feels only right in Bath to see what the Victorians were going on about with the water.
Walk three blocks from the baths and you’re in the middle of a very nice, new outdoor shopping mall that has a kind of Southern California vibe. Cross the river into the residential neighborhood surrounding the city and you find your seemingly modest, but obscenely priced townhouses and cottages stacked on the surrounding hillsides.
For a city you can walk across in less than 30 minutes, there are a lot of different faces to Bath. Part of what I think makes it interesting is this layering of Roman history with 18th century history. The town was a novelty and historical attraction to Jane Austen and her posse 250 years ago partly because of its Roman history, and much of Bath today is like a vision of the Romans through the eyes of the Victorians. Something about having the ancient ruins in the middle of the city allows you to have a better understanding of Regency England. We’ve all been brought here for the same reason.
Bath in 2016 is still pretty fashionable in a subtle way. It’s one of the only places in England outside London with an Anthropologie, which sounds silly but that’s a borderline luxury brand here. Things aren’t overly expensive in Bath, but it feels expensive; not snobbish or cosmopolitan, but there’s something about Bath that’s very dignified, despite the fact that today it’s become a pretty big university town. It manages to gracefully walk the line between big city and small village.
A good day trip from Bath if you have the time, and a car, is a visit to Highclere Castle.
Recognizable to anyone who’s ever seen a photo of anything related to Downton Abbey, it is the set for the eponymous estate and many of the interior scenes are filmed here too; the library and the main hall are almost eerily identical to their appearances on the show. A family still lives here, which makes visiting feel a bit voyeuristic at times with family photos on the tables and personal magazine subscriptions lying around. Women on Downton Abbey pilgrimages do make up the majority of the crowd; someone in one room recognized the chandelier from the title sequence of the show, where it appears only momentarily. This chandelier:
You can pretty much learn everything you need to know about the show and understand the general atmosphere of it, and of Highclere Castle in general, just from watching the opening credits.
There’s a nice gift shop with must-have items like flasks that say “His Lordship” and a scenic tea garden. I’m a very casual Downton Abbey fan, having seen maybe half the series, and even if you have no interest in the show whatsoever, this is still a great example of an excellently preserved English estate.
Bath—Painswick—Stow-on-the-Wold, 63 miles
I was a little wary of the Cotswolds. This is one of those places that has been bedecking the pages of travel and home décor magazines since forever and coming to such a well-known and popular spot in the height of summer, I was prepared for it to be uncomfortably crowded.
The answer is it is and it isn’t. I don’t know an exact number but it seems like there are hundreds of villages in the Cotswolds so aside from the few that are busy—avoid Broadway and the oft-touted, overrated Bourton-on-the-Water—it is very easy to find a village all to yourself. I would occasionally be going to a village and pull up to find it packed, but keep driving, you’ll inevitably stumble on another in 5-10 miles.
One well-known place that is worth a quick stop is Lacock. If you’ve seen a movie set in Britain any time between 1700 and 1900, there’s a good chance rural village street scenes were filmed here. All of the Cotswolds towns have been remarkably preserved, but Lacock is a unique time capsule of a place. You can walk around the whole thing in about 15 minutes with a few stops into the stores selling various bits and bobs. You won’t be the only person there, but it’s still worth it.
The trade-off you make in the Cotswolds is between bigger towns with more going on and more people, and smaller towns, which are usually very quiet and where your hotel had better have a restaurant if you don’t want to go hungry. Painswick is firmly in the second category. This is a pretty southerly town in the Cotswolds and it’s so small that it doesn’t even have a High Street, the British equivalent of a small-town American Main Street. Instead you’ll find rows of cottages whose names function as addresses in lieu of street numbers and miles of farmland cresting over the surrounding hillsides, with dozens of even tinier villages, often just a dozen houses or so, tucked behind rows of hedges and tall trees.
After Painswick, I moved north and based myself in Stow-on-the-Wold, a more popular town but still pretty quiet. Generally speaking, the further north you go in the Cotswolds, the busier it gets. More of the big towns are here, like Cheltenham and Chipping Norton, and there’s a higher concentration of small villages and bedroom communities. This makes it a great area to explore on foot as you can often walk between several villages in a few hours.
Near Stow-on-the-Wold is the very creepily named Upper and Lower Slaughter, two towns infinitely more quaint than their murderous monikers indicate. The walk between the two is one of the most popular walks in the Cotswolds and predictably more crowded, but calling it a “walk” is generous. It took me 10 minutes to make the trek through completely flat fields, including stops to take pictures. Lower Slaughter is busier, and two of the nicer hotels in the area are in the two villages, but it’s a good kind of crowded, with wedding parties and families out enjoying their weekend, not busloads of people. Upper Slaughter is so quiet that even driving through in a hybrid car, I felt like I was disturbing the peace. A stream runs through the middle of one of the town’s only roads and when I pulled up to cross, a group of kids and some ducklings had to get out of the way.
As long as you steer clear of the larger towns, you’ll find the best Cotswolds villages whether you want to or not. After researching extensively which were the “best” to visit, I came to the conclusion that they’re all about the same so it doesn’t really matter. Below are some of the ones I visited and while I’d recommend them all, this should be no means be a guiding list: Painswick, Lacock, Tetbury, Upper and Lower Slaughter, Bibury, Naunton, Winchcombe, Stanton, and Snowshill.
“Hill walking” or hiking is another great thing to do in the Cotswolds. Most people seem to come here for the cultural appeal so you’ll almost never see another person when you’re out. If you’re used to hiking pretty much anywhere else in the world, walking in England is a totally different experience. Almost all the land you’ll cross is privately owned so you’re forever going through people’s farm gates and disrupting the omnipresent herds of sheep and cows. This is just the system in England and there’s nothing unusual about it, but I can’t get used to the notion of traipsing across someone else’s property on a regular basis as part of a walk. Because these trails are usually empty and you’re walking through people’s farmland, it gives you a good sense of the region that has nothing to do with tourism and multimillion-pound vacations homes, and there are often great views of the countryside. Reading the trail instructions can be like reading a different language. The first time you see “cross the stile onto the wier and turn left,” I’m guessing many of us will have little idea what that’s trying to say.
Another thing I learned is that there is a specific type of luggage that you only find in the wild in the Cotswolds. Everyone has had that experience of going to a luggage store and in the window there’s always some beautiful, pristine canvas and leather duffle bag with impractical handles and unusable pockets and a place for a monogram. It looks great, but most of us never have anywhere we can take a bag like that because even the overheard bin will forever ruin the supple leather and unblemished canvas siding. Well good news, I’ve found the place where you can use these bags. The way to do it is to take it out of your London apartment, put it directly into the back of a Range Rover, and then gingerly carry it into your refurbished 18th-century farmhouse in the Cotswolds.
Though not technically in the Cotswolds, Stratford-Upon-Avon is in the region and as the birthplace of Shakespeare, you’re practically required to go if you’re a literate English-speaking person. Stratford is actually a sizable town with a lot of modern development, but it’s still a giant shrine to the Bard. On paper, it’s somewhat disappointing from this perspective. Shakespeare’s grave is about as ordinary as possible and his birthplace is an interesting 16th-century house that gives you a good idea of what life in a rural English city was like then, but little insight into Shakespeare the playwright. Much of Stratford’s strength is simply in knowing you’re there. If the weather is nice, which it certainly was not when I was there, a walk or boat ride along the river would be very idyllic but beyond the few Shakespeare-related sights, it’s an otherwise ordinary place. But such is the power of Shakespeare that it doesn’t matter. Even standing in the Caffe Nero in Stratford feels like you’re in rarified air.
For a place that’s so agricultural, the Cotswolds is surprisingly ritzy and that’s the inherent underlying strangeness of this region. Most of the homes look spectacular because they’ve been bought and meticulously fixed up by wealthy Londoners and retirees, most of whom have no interest in farming. I don’t blame them at all, but it’s totally changed the complexion of the region. As one local described it, the Cotswolds have been taken over by “chocolate box farmhouses” and it has slowly choked out the families who are still farming. The extinction of small farms is not unique to England and I’m not trying to shame people in the Cotswolds who use the area for their holiday weekends. I have spent exactly 24 hours working on a dairy farm and anyone who’s done that can understand why people are losing interest in farming, a far from romantic lifestyle. The Cotswolds is one of many places experiencing this phenomenon and the influx of weekenders has undoubtedly brought a lot of commerce to the region, which is great. But I think if you go here, it’s at least worth noting this.
That said, I would overwhelmingly recommend the Cotswolds. It exceeded my expectations and lived up to the hype. If you want a sense of what true, gritty rural agricultural England looks like, this is certainly not the place. This is the polished, farm-to-table restaurant, boutique hotel, chocolate-box version of rural England. Frankly, that’s what most of us are looking for. Working farms are hard places and thank god for them. I’m a big believer in agritourism but at the same time, there’s nothing wrong with wanting to spend your vacation days in something a little more posh.
I don’t often stay in hotels and rarely plug them when I do, but the two B&B’s I stayed at in the Cotswolds were exemplary and this is the kind of place where the hotel you stay in can make all the difference. With that in mind, I highly recommend The Painswick Hotel and The Old Stocks Inn. They both perfectly balance the modern, hip hotel vibe with practicality and originality, while still feeling like quaint inns in the country.
Next stop: Wales. And I’ll tackle the question, what exactly is the United Kingdom?