Rails & Tires: A combination trip to rural England
An American couple blends train and auto travel for a holiday in rural south-central England.
by Laurel Kallenbach
As a North American accustomed to driving on the right-hand side of the road, I break into a cold sweat at the prospect of navigating Britain’s left-sided motorways. The convenient, relaxing solution to my driving anxiety: train travel, which also happens to be more environmentally friendly than auto travel.
On our recent trip to Britain, however, my husband and I wanted to explore some of England’s rural areas, so a rental car was necessary. However, we were able to cut our time on the roads in half just by taking the train whenever possible. A BritRail Flexipass, furnished by ACP Rail International, allowed us to take the train any three days within a two-month period. This flexibility meant we could drive to locations not easily accessible by train, yet we still enjoyed chunks of time visiting wonderful cities without worrying about traffic circles, parking, or fuel.
The BritRail pass can be used in England, Scotland and Wales. This proved invaluable for the first leg of my journey, which included a weeklong yoga retreat on the Scottish island of Cumbrae, just off the coast of Largs. Largs is an easy train ride from Glasgow—and the rail station was just a five-minute walk from the ferry launch, where I caught a short, but scenic, ferry ride to the island.
On Cumbrae, I stayed in Millport at the lovely Cathedral of The Isles. It’s worth the trip to this picturesque town just to hear a Bach recital played upon the church’s outstanding pipe organ. And it’s delightful to bicycle around the island, spotting sea birds and beholding glorious ocean views.
Fast Train to Oxford
After the retreat, I hopped on the high-speed train from Glasgow to Oxford, where I met my husband. The journey took less than six hours, during which I admired the scenery and read the Oxford guidebook to scope out the colleges that were used as film locations for the Harry Potter movies or for TV’s Inspector Lewis mysteries. The first-class carriage was quiet and roomy, and the attendant brought me a complimentary snack box and hot tea for refreshment. Occasionally I looked out the window and saw cars along the highways and was happy I wasn’t stuck in traffic.
The city of Oxford is perfect for pedestrians and bus riders. In fact, the red, double-decker City Sightseeing bus (aka “The Topless Bus”) makes a stop at the Oxford train station. There you can board and listen to a recorded narration about the history of this medieval town and hop on and off at 19 different stops along the way. Sitting on the upper, open-air level of this bus is the best way to get your bearings—plus the added height puts you eye to eye with the grimacing gargoyles that make Oxford’s medieval buildings famous.
Downton Abbey and the Cotswolds
After several days in Oxford, my husband and I rented a car so that we could visit Highclere Castle, where Downton Abbey is filmed. This iconic country estate was incredible to visit, not just for seeing its lavishly furnished décor, but for its history. Like the fictional Downton Abbey, Highclere Castle became a convalescent home for WWI soldiers. In addition, Highclere is the ancestral home of the Carnarvons, and the Fifth Earl of Carnarvon funded the archaeological dig that discovered King Tut’s tomb.
(For the record, you can reach Highclere Castle by taking the train to Newbury. At the station, you can hire a taxi to transport you the rest of the way. We were spending two nights at Tylney Hall, a nearby country manor house turned luxury hotel, so that option didn’t work for us.)
It took my husband and I several days to feel at ease sitting in the driver’s seat on the right side of our rental car, a Toyota Auris hybrid, but we were very comfortable knowing we were minimizing our carbon footprint. And visiting the English countryside was worth it. We were circling roundabouts like pros by the time we reached the Cotswolds, where we rented a National Trust country cottage. Every day, we drove pretty backroads on our excursions to tiny, picturesque villages in these lovely hills.
If you prefer not to drive, don’t cross the Cotswolds off your list. A half-dozen train stations serve the area, and you can visit many of the lovely outlying villages by bus, bicycle or on foot (via the Cotswold Way footpath).
Out of the Car and into Bath
Though we enjoyed the off-the-beaten path sights in the Cotswolds, we were more than ready to surrender our car in the city of Bath. We’d managed to navigate England’s rural roads and less-trafficked highways pretty well, but our last hour in the maze of Bath’s narrow and traffic-clogged downtown streets was, shall we say, hair-raising. By the time we reached the rental-car agency, we were fried.
Luckily, Bath’s Thermae Spa is the perfect place to soak away all our driver’s stress. For millennia, people have submerged in the naturally warm mineral waters in Bath—so we followed suit. From a roof-top hot pool of this beautifully modern spa we overlooked Bath’s glorious cathedral spires.
Over the next few days, we explored the ancient Roman Baths, the city’s famous Georgian architecture (including the Royal Crescent and the Circus), and dined at many wonderful restaurants. And because we didn’t have to drive back to our hotel, we could enjoy the local ales with dinner.
When our final morning in England arrived, we were sad to leave, but departing was less painful knowing we’d have a carefree journey from Bath to Heathrow Airport via BritRail. When a timely arrival is mandatory, it’s a relief to know that the train timetable is reliable and efficient. So, for our final hours in England, my husband and I sat back—and let the train’s engineer do the driving.
PHOTOS BY LAUREL KALLENBACH
Photo 1: Highclere Castle, where the show Downton Abbey is filmed
Photo 2: Oxford University, famous for its spires and gargoyles