Monday, January 2, 2017

UK England and Scotland Driving Holiday Day 1 and Day 2 Stonehenge, Bath, Stratford upon Avon December 2016

Greetings to all!  Over the next few pages, I shall document our recent UK Driving Holiday in December 2016 for easy reference.  Bear in mind this was a holiday in winter.  Why winter?  Well, we had to plan our holidays around the school holidays, and since we had been to UK before, we decided to do a driving holiday for the fun of it, even though we knew that it would be colder and the day light would be shorter.  Still, what's life without an adventure of sorts?  So off we went.

Day 1 - Arrival, Picking up Car, Going to Stonehenge & Bath, Overnight Premier Inn Trowbridge
After a wonderful flight on Vietnam Airlines (we were in the Business Cabin), we arrived at London Heathrow Terminal 4 in the morning, just after 7am.  It was fairly chilly, around 6 deg C. Getting through security and immigration was very quick (thanks to Fast Track) and before we knew it, we were in the arrivals hall trying to figure out how to get to SIXT car rental.

Then, I spotted this wall, which looked promising.  After all, it said "Car Rentals".  So we headed to the temporary looking display for a closer look.

And this is what I saw.  Under SIXT Rent a car, it put Bus stop 2.  Great, let's go to Bus stop 2 for the pickup.  But wait a second, I decided to read the fine print.  This is what is said - "Please call 0203 462 6791 to request a shuttle service, then make your way to bus stop 2 to be collected."  I read it a few times.  Duh!  You had to call them?  Ok, let's try using the phone, but look carefully, the phone was broken!  Oh goodness gracious.  Imagine if you did not know how to read English, you would have just gone to Bus Stop 2 and waited like a fool.  Even if you could read English, how to call?  Thank God, we had UK mobile numbers (Lesson learnt, always good to get a local mobile number when travelling, because you never know when you need to call somebody) and I called the number and true enough, the person on the other side said that they would despatch a shuttle bus to pick us up.  (No call, no bus LOL!)

Well, the Lord is good.  So we made the call, found our way to the Bus Stop 2, and waited.  At Bus Stop 2, I noticed three other shuttles waiting for passengers, including Hertz.  Later, I figured out that you didn't need to call if you booked from say Hertz, because they have constant shuttles to the various London Heathrow Terminals to pick up and drop-off passengers.  SIXT is a much smaller set-up compared to the big-boys, hence they will only pick you up if you call them.  Makes sense, however, SIXT should at least ensure that the phone in Terminal 4 is working! 

Well, the good thing from hiring from a less busy company was that we had the entire shuttle bus to ourselves.  It came to pick us (we waited only around 5 minutes from the time we arrived at the Bus Stop 2) and the ride to SIXT took around 10 minutes.  This was the sight that greeted us.  It was fairly bus and I had to wait about 10 minutes before I was served.

Service was efficient, though I expressed disappointment when I couldn't get the car I had hoped to get, which was the Mercedes E class Estate.  From the SIXT website, the choice of car in the category I booked looked like this.  It was the Premium Class Estates PWAR category, and advertised as Mercedes Benz E-class Estate or similar.  The key is the word 'similar'. Unfortunately, they did not have this model so I had accept the Audi A6 Estate instead.  No matter, it was a very new and nice car, Adblue issues aside!

Why choose an Estate Car?  Well, we needed more boot space, and since this is a rental, I decided to get a Premium model since I don't think I'll ever own an Audi or Mercedes in Singapore (just too expensive to afford).  Another practical reason - only premium models came with onboard GPS, or they call it Sat Nav.  Car models without Sat Nav means that you have to hire Sat Nav separately and that costs at least 10 pounds per day.  (Or you could buy or bring your own, but that is just too troublesome for me).  The rate I got was similar to the one you see in the screenshot before, approx 70 pounds per day for the day.

When you get the keys to the rental car, there is a huge temptation to load up, and drive off.  I would caution against that.  Better to check the car carefully for damage otherwise you may have to pay for the damage!  So I walked one round the car and took this video and some photos.  Something like this.

Alright.  After inspecting, and loading up, it was time to go!  In the UK, the most reliable way to get to your destination is using the SatNav, but even SatNav will only bring you to the immediate vicinity.  Useful to have your itinerary printed out in front of you too, in case you need to make quick reference.  Also useful to use maps like Google Maps to visualize the route.  Our first stop for the day would be the Stonehenge Visitor Center, almost 75 miles or 120km away.  Time to drive.

Traffic was fairly light and we got to Stonehenge quickly.  All the way here to see some stones?  Yes, that's about it.  Stonehenge is about stones from the pre-historic era.  The weather was a tad chilly, but good enough to spend an hour outdoors.  All to see some stones.  You can read up about why the Stonehenge is so famous online.

And here is a video of our Stonehenge experience.   Looking at stones from pre-historic times, even before Roman times.  The stones were left by a culture and people that left no written word. This place gets super crowded during the busy times in Summer, because it is one of England's most famous tourist site.  This place can't cope with the crowds and you are encouraged to pre-book your arrival times otherwise you may not be able to enter the exhibit. We didn't have any of such problems in winter.  The loads were very light.  While in line, we were approached by a staff selling the English Heritage Visitor Pass, which we bought. Turned out to be useful because it could be used at many English Heritage sites.    Oh, one more things, due to large crowds, visitors can no longer go right up to touch the stones.  The video will show you the closest you can get to the stones, which is still quite far off.  Still, this was a bucket-list sight for us, and we're glad to have done it.

There was a cafe at the Visitor centre, but we decided not to eat anything, because time was tight and we wanted to visit Bath before going to our hotel at Trowbridge.  Why so complicated?  Well, when we were looking at hotels to stay in Bath, they turned out to either be fully booked or very expensive.  There was something happening at Bath over the weekend, so we booked the Premier Inn at Trowbridge instead.  The following map extract shows you the two places. The distance from Stonehenge to Bath wasn't too far, however, it would be on smaller A-roads, so it would take a while.

Took a little over an hour to reach Bath from Stonehenge.  The problem we faced was parking.  I circled around the city a bit but couldn't find any place to park (entered a car park but it was full), and finally had to park at a Cricket Club which was about a 10 minute walk to the City Center.  Take note that parking in UK cities would cost some pounds, and enforcement is quite prompt.  Usually, it is a pay and display type of system.  You got to find a machine to pay money, get the ticket and display on your windshield, like this.  In this case, I paid 4.50 pounds for 3 hours of parking.

Our first stop in Bath was to find a place to eat.  Googled and found some chinese restaurant where we had some Chinese food.  The food was only so-so (and at UK prices), but we still need to eat.

What we noticed was that this restaurant was very crowded, and Sichuan food was very popular!

Turns out that Bath City centre was quite crowded.  Heard that there was a Rugby match going on and many people were out and about.  There were also Christmas markets.  With our tummies full, we decided to talk a walk around the city center, but we did not visit any of the paid sites.  Just felt a tad too crowded for our liking, and after some walking we headed back to the car for the drive to Trowbridge.  Here is a video of the people in Bath.  Oh, this was a Saturday, so that helped explained the crowds too.

The drive to Premier Inn Trowbridge too about 30 minutes.  By this time, it was getting dark and jet lag was setting in.  We had arrived in London that morning! It was also getting cold. Fortunately, we found the hotel, as well as car-parking (take note, carparks are not always available) and checked in Kids didn't want to go anywhere and since we were quite full, we just bought some takeaway pizza from a nearby restaurant and that settled dinner.  The UK was hitting a cold front.  Usually, it isn't this cold during this time of the year. We were all tired, so went to bed quite early. Weather was getting cold and tomorrow would be Day 2.  Fortunately, the weather looked like it would warm up after a few days, but tomorrow (Sunday) looked chilly.

Day 2 - Breakfast and onwards to Stratford upon Avon
Day 2 morning.  We slept well and didn't wake up too early, I think around 6AM.  Soon, it was time for breakfast.  We like the Premier Inn chain for its breakfast because Kids eat free! And they define kids up to 16 years of age.  So we buy 2 adult breakfast, and up to 4 kids can eat free.  We only have 2 kids, but that's good enough!  How much per adult?  Here is our receipt.  It was 8.99 UK Pounds per adult.  Notice the VAT in UK - 20%.

Breakfast - we were the only customers in the restaurant!  This was the low season after all.The self-service Costa coffee machine was always very welcomed, especially in winter.  Have as much as you like, when you have the breakfast.

Here was my feast. Way too much for breakfast, but hey, I was on holiday.  Just eat and be merry, since it was cold, and we would be out for the rest of the day.

Here is a video of the Premier Inn Trowbridge Room and breakfast experience.  The room cost 66 UK pounds for that one night. You can see that it was a large Family room, with sufficient bedding for the four of us.

After a good breakfast and plenty of hot coffee (I usually have 2 cups and my family members too!), it was time to get going.  But before that, we had to deal with a somewhat frozen car.  Check it out!

Yes, it was below zero overnight, so there was some frost on the car.  Nothing too serious, though coming from tropical Singapore, this was an interesting experience for us who were so used to 30 deg C heat and humidity! Anyway, after warming up the car, it was time to head off.  Today, the plan was to go to Stratford upon Avon.  This was the route:

The absolute distance of about 75 miles didn't sound too far, but because we were travelling largely on smaller A-roads, I couldn't drive that fast so the journey did take some time.  Along the way, we must have stopped at some supermarket to buy water and snacks, since I found these videos in my collection:

We arrived in Stratford upon Avon in good time.  Fortunately, the sun was shining and it was longer as chilly as the morning.  Parked the car at a public carpark and it was time to explore Stratford upon Avon.  Here was a map.

The town wasn't big at all.  Very easy to walk around on foot, using these maps, and my phone GPS. By this time, we were feeling hungry. We found a decent look pub, and it turned out to be part of the Wetherspoon chain.  So we decided to have some pub food.  We have dined at the Wetherspoon chain of pubs before, so we more or less knew what to expect.  The video shows you what we had for lunch.  The portions were quite large and the four of us could easily share three portions.  Here is a video of the food, plus the pub menu.  This place was crowded!

After lunch, it was time to visit the various Shakespeare historic sights.  The most interesting was the Shakespeare's birthplace.  I had read on TripAdvisor that there wasn't really very much to see, and I was given the impression that this place would be a tourist trap.  The verdict? Well, if you want to be cynical about it, yes it was kinda a tourist trap.  However, I did find the 16th Century house that Shakespeare was born in to be very interesting.  And also found out that Shakespeare's Father was a craftsman (he made gloves) and even rose to become the Mayor of Stratford upon Avon.  During Shakespeare's time, this town had a population of around 6,000 (I think).  So, yes, I could be cynical about it but Shakespeare is arguably the most famous writer of our time (had to read so many of his works while in school) and it was in our bucket list to visit his birthplace. So we did it!  If you are not a fan of Shakespeare and you don't like 16th Century houses, give this place a miss.  Here is a video of our experience in Shakespeare's Birthplace.

On top of the birthplace, there were a few other sights included in the ticket price, but it didn't leave much of an impression with me.  So, this concludes Day 2 as we would then head to a Premier Inn at Stratford upon Avon Waterways, to spend the night.

(To be continued)


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