“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.
Yayy for the maps! 🙂 Oh man, I have had issues with every car I rented – and with issues I mean close encounters with either cars or walls. I don’t know what it is, but one thing is for sure. I’m never driving without full insurance, that’s a hard lesson I learned on Bonaire!
I’ve actually been a bit of a risk taker and gone without full insurance many times — but NEVER when driving wrong side of the road! That’s just asking for trouble!
I’ve been reading your blog for years, and this has been one of my favorite posts. Your jokes were on point, and it’s hard to make this girl chuckle out loud. Rental cars resulting in the near dissolution of relationships – yes. If you haven’t shed any frustrated, anxiety-induced tears in a rental car, you haven’t truly tested your relationship. By the way, I loved the red tights outfit. It reminded me of the movie Happy Go Lucky – and felt very appropriate for London. Don’t beat yourself up!
Haha thanks Blayne, I really appreciate that! I was reading some of my older posts recently and thinking, dang I used to be funny, so maybe that put me in a sassy mood 😉
Oh car rental in the UK and Ireland! I’ve done both. Not in England though. It was Scotland. I always tell my clients (I’m a travel agent) to get a manual if they can drive it (it’s cheaper) and to only drive outside of the big cities. I’m glad you can laugh about it. I personally love driving in Ireland as it’s the best and about the only way to see as much as you do. The same holds true for Scotland. And I wish I had a car while in the Cotswolds. Great post!
I remember when I rented a car in Malta a few years ago and was shocked to arrive and realize they only had manual cars… I hadn’t even thought to specify it. I’ve learned a lot since then 😉
You nailed it – Never rent a car in England.
When we buzzed around the same region it was with a hired driver. Actually a tour type company with a smart driver who took us all over southern England. I loved relaxing in his little van with my headphones on just staring out the window. Parking not a problem since he could drop us off anywhere and then pick us up a few hours later.
That does sound lovely, Rick! While we loved the freedom to stop and start as we pleased and follow our whims — as I detailed, we clearly had a few snafus along the way 😉
I’m sorry to laugh but I love your travel fails. If you ever hire a car in the UK again, use Enterprise. Amazing company, great customer service and fab prices!
I LOVE Enterprise in the US. We used Europcar specifically for their drop off service — major eyeroll on that.
Makes me giggle to read. Stonehenge!!! What underwhelm !!!
But you’ve got to love our English pubs!! ????
I’m glad I’ve seen it! …but I’m also glad I didn’t pay for it 😉 The pubs are the best!
I learned my lesson in Japan – renting a car where there’s ample public transportation available and when you’re driving on the opposite side from what you’re used to is just not a good idea! The trains and buses in England are too good to rent – although I can see where I’d be totally swept up in the idea of a country drive through the Cotswolds, too!
Yup, the Cotswolds were what did us in (well, and the gin.) But train travel is just so efficient, we would have had way less headaches if we’d stuck to our primary destinations and spent the journeys relaxing and looking out the windows instead!
HAHAHA Alex, what a disaster!! While I’ve never had an issue renting a car in England, I’m pretty sure it’s because I have always done it with an Englishman! AS A PASSENGER. Are you kidding me with stick shift / other side of the road / two-way single windy lanes flanked by hedges so high you can’t see anyone coming ’til your nose-to-nose?! Hell to the no.
Shout out to LOWER SLAUGHTER, my dear friend’s hometown!! I can’t believe he grew up in that postcard of a place. And indeed, what on earth is up with the name!
Oh yeah. MAJOR shoutout to Ian for doing all the driving because no way was I getting behind the wheel. I’ve done plenty of other-side driving in Cayman, here in Thailand and for one very brief drive from the airport in Malta but England is another beast entirely with those tiny roads and that traffic and beyond.
And whoa, I can’t imagine growing up in Lower Slaughter! That must have been a major hike to the nearest school/grocery store/movie theater, huh?
Loved your photos of the Cotswolds!
And I found that one of my biggest problems after learning how to drive on the British side of the road in Grand Cayman for a week, was more getting used to driving on the American side when we got back.
Either way, learning to drive on the opposite side of the road is not a good thing for couples to learn, LOL – maybe just one of them should learn and come back for the other!
Cayman is actually the first place I learned to drive on the “other” side of the road, too! The thing I found startling there was that there were cars with wheels on the left and right — it was always disorienting seeing drivers coming at ya from both.
Renting a car and driving around is great but can be stressful and funny at the same time but is a good way to see a country, a good GPS is a must though so you don’t get lost
We actually had a really good GPS and it still didn’t help us much, ha. We were just a lost cause!
Great read, and a story I’ve been interested in. There’s so much in the UK to see, and the best way is by car, but we can be a bit unfriendly as a car nation. Traffic can be a nightmare at times, especially around cities, but there are some real joys in the UK. When you come back, try a county like Norfolk, or my own, Kent.
The issues with the rental company have happened to me in the US:- I think it’s a ploy to remind us we’re not at home now – different rules!
Finally, a good country pub can’t be beaten.
Yeah, the really terrible traffic happened in weird places — seemingly little towns where we were absolutely in gridlock and there was just no alternative route! I think we had back luck of hitting some accidents at rush hour or something but it was like the worst Bangkok gridlock I’ve ever encountered… in these provincial little British towns!
I can’t believe you passed through my home town! (I’ve been following your blog for years.) If you ever come this way again, Cirencester is a brilliant town to stop in (great places to eat, gorgeous old architecture and lots of boutique shops; known as the ‘capital of the Cotswolds’) and the old part of my own village, South Cerney, has some beautiful photo opportunities. Looking forward to reading more of your English adventures!
Ah, which town is that Thursa? I love it! I’d definitely do another drive through the Cotswolds someday 🙂 Still have Bristol, Bath, Wales and Liverpool to come!
After the wall incident, a conversation on the lines of “this is just not worth it, forget the trip, let’s just go back” didn’t happen? Kudos to you on that! Seriously! 🙂
Hahaha, I guess we’re just stubborn! 😉 I’m glad we persevered!
What a nightmare! I did not expect the driving into a wall bit! Haha. I’m way too nervous to drive in another country – especially the UK! – and this post just reiterates that fact. The Cotswold look so lovely though, and I’m dying to visit the Bombay distillery now!
Actually one of my big accomplishments of 2017 was finally feeling comfortable personally renting cars and motorbikes (anywhere outside Koh Tao) — I had to rent cars a lot over the summer in the US and rented motorbikes in several Thai cities and it was so freeing not to be paranoid about it anymore. I hope you find the same peace soon 😉
Eek! I hope I have a better time renting a car in Ireland this summer! But hey, you’ve got some new stories now. AND you got to see the Cotswolds, which a lot of people miss in England!
Very true! I think Angie just did a big road trip through Ireland — you should check out her posts! (Though I think she was terrified by some of the driving they did, ha ha!)
hello Alex just wanted to look you up again about ooh tao we talked before,I live in the cotswolds and am here right now so next time ill make it easier for you by giving you a list of best foodie places etc!!xxxxxxxx
That sounds lovely Claire, thank you! x
I’ll be heading there soon! Any recommendation of places with beautiful lunch time food?
I loved reading this! As a Brit, I never really think about the horrors of driving! It is a poorly signposted country though! Sadly, loads of the UK is inaccessible by public transport. Without a car you’d be spending an absolute fortune!
Yeah, we definitely wouldn’t have attempted any of these stops without a car — we just would have gone straight through our destinations via rail. Which would have been far simpler, for sure!
Dear lord, what an adventure! Both good and bad XD I’m so glad my parents made me learn stick shift lol. I can see why you’re unsure of whether you are glad you did it that way though, because those towns did look really adorable! I would probably have just stuck to the trains though because I hate renting cars. But if I happened to have a friend nearby with a car then this sounds like a great place to road trip actually
I am SO JEALOUS you know how to drive stick. It really is on my list to learn — it’s been a major stumbling block a few times in recent years.
I give you props! I attempted to rent a car in Australia and as soon as I got in there I was like nope not for me. I have also had horrible experiences with Sixt and Europcar. Although more expensive I think next time I will definitely be using Hertz abroad.
Agreed — I think I’ll stick to the brands I’ve had excellent luck with domestically in the future (for me, it’s been Avis and Enterprise.)
I’ve rented a car in both Ireland and Scotland (automatic of course), and found it easy to drive on the opposite side of the road after a couple hours. Turning was the worst part of it, just had to concentrate. Those narrow streets are killer too; an approaching car is scary how close they pass you! I found it easier to look at the center line if there is one, or the sidewalk side instead of the approaching car; less likely to have a heart attack!
Good tips Danielle! Seriously 🙂
We actually rented a car to drive from London up to and around the North Coast 500 in Scotland. I wouldn’t have done it any other way, though I definitely agree that it could be challenging to pick up – we got it at the Gatwick airport and our plane was delayed, customs took an eon, and then we got to the pick up desk – late – only to discover they had closed this secondary desk and only had the other one, located in a further area, open. We got a good laugh out of it after we were in the car but it definitely was stressful at the time. Still happy we had it, and definitely happy we booked an automatic car and through Enterprise. Your adventures seem to be well worth it, though, and your zoom for Stonehenge is jealousy-inducing (as someone who – admittedly – happily paid the entrance fee).
I still remember the first time I had a rental car in Europe — in Malta — and I didn’t even THINK to specify I needed an automatic one. They were furious I hadn’t brought it up earlier and made a huge stink since apparently they didn’t have many. I learned my lesson after that — the rest of the world drives manual!
Thank you for the blog – as I’m looking at Cotswold Airbnbs and car rentals. Hmmmmmm
Sounds tempting! What a beautiful part of England.
Loving the feed. Very envious of you travelling so much when you are young, and wishing we’d done the same.
Funny about the gin/tonic water thing as well. I used to think gin tasted like kerosene, but there are some brilliant mixers available now and even the bride enjoys a tipple from time to time.
It’s definitely not my favorite spirit, but I’ll certainly try it from time to time when I see a cocktail that looks intriguing and features it, tonic water free.