Linger a Bit in the Heartland
It is easy to miss the heart-of-England countryside of the Midlands with dramatic popular destinations like The Cotswolds to the south and the Peaks and Lake District of the North. Rising north of Oxford and spreading east from Birmingham, however, a classically English landscape houses a microcosm of English history and makes for charming visiting. Here is an easy road trip from West to East with reasonable drive times and a great deal of color and variety.
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DAY 1: A DAWDLE TO WARWICKSHIRE
FROM THE AIRPORTS, or London it is an easy couple of hours drive northwest on the M40. The county town of Warwickshire, Warwick makes a historic destination and a convenient base of several nights for exploring the area. The town’s eponymous castle was founded by William the Conqueror in 1068. He wouldn’t recognize the place. The most complete late medieval castle in the kingdom is the site of a long, ancient history and a popular “castle” theme park. Warwick Castle combines well-displayed history with a lot of kitsch. You can feel closer to history at the 12th-century Collegiate Church of St. Mary in the town center, where generations of Earls of Warwick lie in and below the Beauchamp Chapel.
DAY 2: STRATFORD–UPON-AVON FOR THE BARD
IT’S JUST A FEW MILES down the A46 to the hometown of William Shakespeare. Beautiful Stratford-upon-Avon has been trading on the Bard for generations, but don’t let that discourage you; Stratford is a great visit. You might start with Shakespeare’s Birthplace and the Shakespeare Centre in Henley Street. Each of the Shakespeare family properties managed by the Birthplace Trust makes a worthy visit, including New Place, Shakespeare’s family home from 1597 until his death in 1616, and famous Anne Hathaway’s Cottage in nearby Shottery. It would be impossible to see them all in a day. Take a stroll along the Avon to Holy Trinity Church, where Shakespeare was baptized and buried. On the walk back, stop in at The Dirty Duck, the actors’ pub across the street from the Royal Shakespeare Theatre. A performance by the Royal Shakespeare Company at the famous theater adds a memorable kick to any visit to Stratford.
The Bard of Avon’s half-timbered birthplace is a popular, well-interpreted visit in Stratford-upon-Avon.
DAY 3: EXCURSION TO KENILWORTH AND COVENTRY
Continue on to Coventry, if only for a visit to Coventry Cathedral. The industrial city and its medieval cathedral were virtually destroyed by World War II bombing. The new Coventry Cathedral (completed in 1962) was dramatically raised within the bombed ruins of the old. Wander down to Broadgate to the statue of Coventry’s favorite daughter on horseback—Lady Godiva.
DAY 4: ROUTE EAST TO LEICESTER, RUTLAND AND STAMFORD
TAKE THE A46 FROM WARWICK TO THE M69 and a short drive northeast to Leicester this morning. Just follow the A5460 into the city center. It will be impossible to miss newly celebrated Leicester Cathedral. Here’s a visit to the final resting place of King Richard III. Learn the amazing story of the discovery of his bones—lost for 527 years—at the Richard III Centre across the cathedral courtyard, where the discovery was made beneath a car park.
From Leicester, route via Melton Mowbray (famous for Stilton cheese and pork pies) and the A606 to Oakham and along the north shore of Rutland Water to Stamford. There are plenty of interesting stops along the way. Considered the finest stone town in England, Stamford was a principal overnight coaching stop on the Great North Road connecting London to York and Edinburgh. Ancient coaching inns and churches vie for attention in the pretty Georgian downtown. With its extensive parkland bordering the town, Burghley House is one of the great stately mansion visits of England. Home of the Cecil family since Sir William Cecil was Queen Elizabeth’s chief minister, the estate also houses wonderful unusual gardens and a huge deer herd in the park.
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Only 15 miles apart, either Stamford or Peterborough make a good base for two nights. You might put up in one Stamford’s classic coaching inns such as The George or The Bull & Swan, or carry on to Peterborough and return to visit Burghley House tomorrow.
DAY 5: HIDDEN IN PLAIN SIGHT PETERBOROUGH
PETERBOROUGH’S OVERLOOKED glory is its cathedral. Majestic 12th-century Peterborough Cathedral has long flown under the radar, but forms the centerpiece of a charming pedestrianized city center. Don’t miss its extraordinary painted ceiling or the tomb of Queen Katherine of Aragon.
Browse the shops at the elegant Queensgate shopping center across the piazza. For a bright contrast to Queensgate’s polished marble style, visit Peterborough’s covered City Market just a couple of blocks away. There are a number of chain hotels surrounding the center, but The Bell Hotel on Westgate can’t be beat for both character and location.
DAY 6: RETURNING TO LONDON OR CONTINUING ON
IF LONDON IS YOUR DESTINATION, we’ve mentioned before the convenience of dropping off your rental car in Peterborough and taking the train a short hour’s ride into London Kings Cross. Otherwise, an hour’s drive south on the A1 will have you to the M25. Time permitting, you might turn east to the wonderful old university town of Cambridge for a visit to its ancient colleges and museums. Memorable nearby visits include the American Military Cemetery at Maddingly and the World War II airfield at Duxford housing the Museum of the Eighth Air Force.
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