In which we come to my favorite portion of the trip.
It’s time for a road trip.
The first time I rented a car (and drove on the left) was in 2009. I drove from Dublin Airport to Galway on the Irish M6 and then turned the car over to my buddy Eric, who was more than happy to do the rest of the driving. I was content to navigate and look out the window.
The next summer I was in Scotland and had planned to wander the highlands. Twenty minutes after leaving Glasgow Airport I popped a tire after driving too close to the curb. Always had trouble guessing how far to the left I was supposed to be. I ended up driving on a spare and had to restrict my travels.
I like trains.
And yet, they can’t take you everywhere. Trains don’t get you to the best parts of the countryside. And I love to drive, so I had to summon some courage and rent a car. Pro tip: renting a car out of a smaller city like Stratford can reveal some fantastic deals. A “premium” car was only a few pounds more per day than a standard sedan, and so I found myself behind the wheel of a lovely 2016 black BMW.
The first leg only took me an hour south, into the green hill country of the Cotswolds. The A road became a B road which became a town center and then a larger city and then a parking garage. Test after test. Lunch in Cheltenham and then to my B&B, the Malvern View. A walk up Cleeve Hill, a shower, and then a short walk to The Rising Sun for dinner. This is the only place within walking distance for dinner, but it serves nicely. Abbot Ale while reading a book about the Back Room Shakespeare Project.
I wait out a short downpour (with another pint) and then decide to walk back. It’s almost 9 PM but there is still another hour of light in the sky. I stop and watch the sun setting, the lights of Woodmancote and Bishops Cleeve in the distance, mist rising from a wet field. A man in Wellington boots appears and walks through a gate and disappears down a footpath, a line of sheep waiting to greet him.
I took this photo. It’s got an Instagram filter on it, but only to better capture how I experienced that light, those colors, and that moment.
You can’t get here by train.
* * *
The next day was spent walking the Cleeve Hill Ring. Through farmland and wood, up a hill and down a hill. Green fields and crackling power lines overhead. Words and pictures will never really describe what I saw, or how I felt during this walk or the ones that followed in the Lake District. All I can really say is that walking in Great Britain is pretty much my favorite thing in the world. They do it better than anywhere else on the planet as far as I’m concerned. The British have something called “right to roam”, which gives walkers the right to walk through privately-owned lands, whether it’s a sheep pasture or a country estate. It is simple and democratic and perfect.
But let’s get back to that car.
I left the Cotswolds via a narrow one-lane road, passed through Bishops Cleeve one more time, and then found myself on the M5 and the M6, driving to the North and to the Lake District. By now I was feeling more and more comfortable behind the right-side steering wheel, and I finally found that sweet spot that told me how to center the car in the lane. Google Maps and Bluetooth and turn-by-turn directions meant that all the guesswork was taken away regarding my navigation. My favorite music played through my phone, and all I had to do was enjoy the ride and the precision steering of the Bavarian Motor Works.
I have been following The Herdwick Shepherd on Twitter for a long time now, and recently finished his wonderful book The Shepherd’s Life. And so the Lake District had a new fascination for me. I also have a Beatrix Potter story I’ve been wanting to tell, but this entry is getting a bit long so we’ll save that for another time.
It rained all afternoon and evening, and so I spent a long while lingering over beef bourguignon and Cumberland Ale in the hotel bar. My hotel room had no wifi and no phone service, and so the only thing waiting for me back there was spotty TV reception and the Sunday Observer.
At least the local ale is good.
The Lake District seems to attract all the wealthy walkers. The parking lot is filled with Mercedes and Jaguars, a strange contrast to the spartan condition of the hotel. Everyone has “proper” walking gear. The right shoes, the right packs. I find a launderette in Ambleside and chat with a B&B owner for a bit while I run a load of clothing. I have lunch in Bilbo’s Cafe, because why wouldn’t I, and then the afternoon is spent wandering the Cumbrian Way. The weather is glorious and I want to walk and walk and walk forever. A couple I meet along the way is surprised that I don’t have a map with me, but the way is marked easily enough, and I have a good sense of direction. I know my way back. And there is good beer waiting.
It all ends far, far too soon, and the next day I’m back on the road. Signs marked LEAVE dot the landscape as I head south. The vote is in a matter of days.