“You’re renting a car in England?!” my British friends asked, looking concerned. “Just take the trains,” they assured me, echoing the warnings of my guidebook, though I remained convinced that I alone knew best when it came to traveling in a foreign country that I have limited experience exploring.
Pause for laughter.
I actually have pretty mixed feelings on our decision to rent a car now that all is said and done. On one hand, we saw some very cool things in-between our destinations that we really would not have been able to see sans car — a stunning gin distillery, England’s most infamous rocks, and a taste of The Cotswolds. That said, it was an enormous logistical headache, Ian and I almost broke up (just kidding but if you didn’t just nod along I’m guessing you and a significant other have never rented a car together in a foreign country and/or you’re a living breathing angel walking this mortal earth) and left me feeling like perhaps once again I had been a bit overambitious in trying to do and see it all on one short trip.
First let’s start with the good: the booze. I mean, um, our many culturally enriching stops along our road trip route. We rented a car for the portion of our trip between London, Bristol, Bath and Liverpool, and our plan for the first day (here’s a map) was to have the car delivered to Kat’s Forest Hill apartment, hit the road, tour the Bombay Distillery and do a gin tasting, stop for lunch in a charming rural pub, tour Stonehenge, and check into our Airbnb in Bristol before sunset with enough time to grab groceries and cook a cozy dinner at home. Oh, it’s cute how we thought that would happen.
Getting the car was actually part nightmare part hysterical comedy, but I’ll just let the suspense really percolate here by leaving that story for the end of the post. Once we were finally on the road driving away from London, a mere three hours behind schedule, we were so hangry we drove through a McDonald’s out of pure panic (nothing cures travel tragedies like french fries) and peeled off to The Bombay Distillery at Laverstoke Mill.
We arrived to what I have to believe is one of the most visually arresting distilleries in the world. Granted, I haven’t been to many — a true personal failing if I’ve ever heard one — but set in the middle of the countryside, along the River Test, atop a 1,000 year old water-powered mill, sits the Bombay Sapphire Distillery. Every drop of Bombay Sapphire gin found anywhere in the world was distilled in this very spot!
Now, funny story, I used to think that I hated gin. Then, in a devastating soda water/seltzer/tonic miscommunication in an exotic foreign land — Florida — I learned that what I actually hated was tonic water! And the world of gin quickly opened up to me.
Upon arrival, we were given a special map with a microchip embedded in it, which we would tap onto symbols around the distillery to prompt audio information to play.
We moved through the bulk of the tour fairly quickly, but paused to really take time to play in the Botanical Dry Room. By this point, we’d learned that gin is a neutral spirit made from grain and then redistilled with berries, barks, seeds and peels known as “botanicals.” Here, we smelled and touched different ones and used a punch card to record our favorites to create our own flavor profiles — I was really surprised when I saw which ones appealed to me, as they weren’t what I would have guessed! By law, and I really, truly love that something like this is codified somewhere in a legal document, juniper is the predominant flavor in all gin.
Eventually, a host appeared, and we went behind-the-scenes for the final stop on the tour, the actual distillation room. You’ll have to have on close-toed shoes for this bit, as it’s actually a working, functioning distillery.
After, we took our newly minted “aroma maps” to the Mill Bar, where a key revealed which cocktails were recommended for our particular flavor profiles — so cool! I went for Positive Libations, made with strawberry jam, lemon wedges, Rosato Vermouth and topped up with prosecco. It was a hit! Worried about getting carried away? Drivers can have a non-alcoholic cocktail in the bar and pick up a takeaway pack for a gin and tonic at home.
I really loved this stop. The mill has a fascinating history, including visits by royalty, most recently Queen Elizabeth, and since Bombay Sapphire’s relatively recent takeover they have shown an incredibly impressive commitment to sustainability and maintaining the integrity of the space.
We did the simplest, easiest, tour — The Self Discovery Experience, running £16 per person. Other options include hosted tours, a gin cocktail masterclass, horticulture and heritage tours, and an ultimate VIP day including lunch. At an hour and forty five minutes outside London this wouldn’t be an easy day trip by any means, but for gin lovers I’d say it’s a worthy pilgrimage.
in retrospect, I hate this outfit
We’d planned to have lunch at a cute pub nearby — I’d spent ages scoping out Watership Down Inn, The White Hart and The Red Lion — but already hours behind schedule, we decided to grab a quick lunch at the onsite Manydown Bus Stop Café, which was a charming double decker bus decked out in mint green and converted into an eatery for tipsy gin tasters. Considering we’d planned to arrive at 11am and didn’t even leave London until nearly that time, something had to go.
And then, we were back on the road, headed to what Ian described as “a terribly boring pile of rocks that no one should ever pay to see, ever.”
Lucky for him, we wouldn’t. We pulled up to the gates of Stonehenge after about a forty minute drive from the distillery to find the gates of the visitor’s center firmly shut. We could see people milling about inside though, so we parked and went in to see what was going on — Google Maps assured me we still had two hours to visit. What it didn’t tell me was that the last admission is sold two hours before closing. Cue, after a day that I’d painstakingly curated once again took a wrong turn, a waterfall of frustrated tears.
A guard on duty noticed me crying on Ian’s shoulder and leaned over to let us in on a little secret — there was a pretty great view, and it was free. He gave us careful directions to where we could walk across some farmland and get nearly the same view we’d get inside for £17.50 a pop. (Psssst! Here’s a guide if you want to do the same.) Even if you don’t buy tickets or do the whole official shebang, the onsite café looked like a great stop for a bite and there was free wifi there too.
While I’m sure the visitor’s center and onsite museum explaining this ancient temple aligned on the movements of the sun would have been lovely, I was pretty happy with the view we shared with the sheep. Considering the 4,500 year old stones themselves are roped off anyway, we were kind of just a bit further back than we would have been, at a fairly significant savings. Thank goodness for zoom lenses!
By the time we reached our Airbnb in Bristol — more on that later, but in the meantime get $40 off your first booking! — we could have kissed the ground. After a day kicking around Bristol car-free and a second making a simple drive to Bath and back, we were ready to get back behind the wheel for one final stretch of road tripping, this time from Bristol up to Liverpool.
While that route would take just three and a half hours driving directly, or a bit over four hours on a train, we’d decided to set off early and take a scenic drive through The Cotswolds (here’s a map) before arriving in Liverpool in time for dinner.
Our first stop was brunch at the charming Potting Shed Pub in Crudwell, which was about as countryside chic as can be. Our food was fantastic, and the atmosphere was straight out of the set of a BBC America original series. As usual, Ian’s assignment to lead us to beautiful food was aced.
The Cotswolds are what the United Kingdom has christened an Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty (AONB), and are also the second largest protected area in England after the Lakes District. But how I’d describe them is a movie set for The Smurfs or Snow White come to life. Getting a peek at these rolling hills and charming cottages was one of our primary motivations for renting a car.
Our first stop as we entered The Cotswolds was the town of Northleach, which Lonely Planet described as “little visited and underappreciated.” We visited it due to its proximity to the Cotswolds Visitor’s Center, which was right on our route, but we were pretty underwhelmed by both. It was interesting driving through a town that’s been kicking since 1227 for sure, but compared to the wow-factor of the villages we stopped in later, this was the first one I’d cut.
And then we were back in the car, which, when you’re driving past these kinds of views, isn’t too much of a chore.
Our next stop was my favorite. Lower Slaughter, a speck of a town, was so perfectly twee — and so horrifically named, but let’s not discuss that — that it was hard for me to believe I wasn’t on a Hollywood movie set or walking around in some kind of new virtual reality simulator. Could this place seriously be real?
It only took about the amount of time it took to eat an ice cream cone to stroll around this tiny town, but I was already in love. In retrospect, I wish we’d used our time in Northleach to check out the twin town of Upper Slaughter instead.
Our final stop was the perfect note to end our Cotswolds tour on. Chipping Campden — another gloriously ridiculously named town in an area stuffed with them — was another that seemed sprung to life from an animated cartoon. While the area we explored was almost entirely residential, it was hard not to imagine what it would be like to have a weekend cottage tucked among the winding streets of cuteness.
Unfortunately things kind of went downhill from there. We thought it would be a straight three hour shot to Liverpool but it took over five as we got caught in some of the worst traffic I’ve ever experienced (and I am one of the chillest humans on earth about traffic, so it has to be real bad for me to get riled up), closed roads that sent us on wild goose chases, and wrong turns that made our GPS go haywire. I think we had pretty bad luck with the closed roads and the traffic, but it definitely left us rattled.
So what were the other issues with driving in England? To start with an easy target, driving on the opposite side of the road down very narrow lanes could be a bit tense, and parking throughout the Cotswolds was a source of stress. Dropping the car back off in downtown Liverpool was an enormous hassle since we arrived after closing on the day we’d expected to ditch it. But those are minor quibbles and mostly, it was our rental experience with Europcar that was an absolute nightmare.
We’d booked and paid for rental car drop off at my friend Kat’s house, and were packed and ready to go at the allotted time. Half an hour later, we started calling and after ages we eventually got someone on the line who said, oh, yes, we actually can only do drop off for renters with a UK license so it was a glitch in our system that your reservation was accepted, and we just haven’t known how to get ahold of you to tell you! Um, how about the email that you used to send us our confirmation?!
We were furious, but we had no choice but to take an Uber fifteen minutes in the wrong direction to pick the car up ourselves, where all kinds of delays ensued. (Europcar did refund our Uber fare at my insistence, which was a hassle to get but I did appreciate.) Now based, on what happened next, I am SO GLAD that were kind and polite and patient and did not take out any of our frustration on the staff at the rental facility we finally arrived at, who were in no way responsible for the corporate screw up. Because when we finally got into the vehicle, I kid you not, in the midst of a tense conversation over shifting gears and surrounded on all sides by Europcar employees, we — I won’t name names, but it was the one of us who allegedly knows how to drive stick shift — immediately drove the car into the wall of the parking lot.
I am not making this up.
Incredibly, there wasn’t so much as a scratch of damage — to the car anyway, our egos were practically in hospice — and the shell-shocked staff helped us back out of the lot with as much dignity as humanely possible. We drove in silence for quite some time after that.
Parking lot mortification aside, I just couldn’t believe what an outrageous error it was that our reservation was essentially cancelled without notice and it really, really screwed up our day, shaving three hours off one of the two days we were actually meant to enjoy having our own wheels. On another note, if you can nearly crash a rental car before you’ve even left the parking lot and you can laugh about it not even weeks later, you’ve hit the jackpot on whoever’s in the seat next to you and you should probably hold ’em tight, regardless of their taste in road trip tunes.
So was it worth the stress and hassle? I’m honestly not sure. We both probably sprouted a few grey hairs from logistical drama, stress, and delays, but we also saw some pretty fantastic corners of England we wouldn’t have otherwise. And we do have some pretty great dinner party stories out of the whole shebang.
Let’s call it draw, shall we?
Next up: an offbeat tour of Bristol…
Many thanks to Bombay Sapphire Gin Distillery for their hospitality. As always, you receive my honest opinions on Alex in Wanderland regardless of who foots the bill.
Confused on where we are? I’m catching up on the black hole of content from August of 2016 to April of 2017 — when I jumped forward to blog the summer of 2017 as it was happening. Right now, we’re in September of 2016 in the UK, and I can’t wait to turn my detailed notes and journals into blog posts from Hawaii, Jamaica, Thailand and Bali next! My apologies for any confusion with the timeline, and thanks for sticking with me.