The good thing for me is that the train to Victoria leaves from Clapham Junction, the same train station I use every day. I set my alarm to wake me up as if today were a work day so even though a 7am Saturday is ugly at the best of times, I was prepared for it and so it was okay. I think the promise of train station coffee got me through (it's Illy coffee, which we have back home, so that helped).
London Victoria at 8am on a Saturday was pretty crowded, as I'm sure it is on most days really. The station is serviced by rail, the Tube and coach buses, so it's pretty intense. I had Google Mapped where I needed to be, and felt pretty confident that I'd find the bus departure gate, which I did - no problems. Good start. I also remembered to bring my ticket with me - even better!
All checked in, I waited in the queue for the bus and guide to arrive. Queuing proved to be a challenging concept for some of my fellow bus trippers. They had already begun to push and shove, with one rather rotund lady and her whippet-thin husband deciding they were bored with our queue, and they started their own. I regretted finishing my coffee so quickly.
Shepherding us on the bus, we were alerted to a woman and her husband running right for us, scared we'd leave without them. By now we'd all settled into our seats and Mr & Mrs Latecomer started to have a combined panic attack that they wouldn't be allowed to sit together. Inside, I steadfastly refused to budge and when the guide asked me (at full volume), "Are you travelling alone?!", I replied in the affirmative and said nothing more. My eyes dared her to ask me to move. She backed off. We were going to get along fine.
With Mr & Mrs Latecomer shoved down the back of the coach (somewhere near the toilet presumably), we set off for Oxford. The guide prattled on about complete nonsense the whole drive out of the City center, but I was just enjoying the view as we drove past Harvey Nichols (oops, Harvey Nicks), then along past Harrod's (hey, been there!) and along the residential streets of the well-to-do areas. The soothing voice of the guide, and the promise of a day where I wouldn't have to think or be stressed, lulled me into relaxed mode very quickly.
Our first stop on the day's program was Oxford and our only stop there was Christ Church College & Cathedral.
Heading up the stairs into the famed Great Hall, things descended rapidly into a pushing and shoving match. People were desperately trying to photograph the portraits around the wall, nobody having a clue who was in them or what significance their portrait might carry. I recognised The Great Hall from the "Harry Potter" movie - though they only briefly filmed here. Filming got expensive and disruptive rather quickly, so the College booted the film crew out and they had to build a Great Hall replica on a sound stage someplace else. I stayed in the room long enough to snap that photo and then I scurried under a barrier and got the hell out of there - through the same entrance I used to come in. No sense of crowd control here. None.
As we were coming into the Christ Church, our tour guide had given us a great little Guide to the College and Cathedral that detailed all the gorgeous architecture, stonework and stained glass that we would encounter along the halls. You know what? I hardly saw any of it. I was jostled from start to finish by hundreds - and I mean literally hundreds - of Italian school students. The place was crawling with them and they jostled and shouted and then stopped dead in their tracks and generally caused me a great deal of grief. I sat down in the Latin Chapel inside the Christ Church, to flick through the Guide we'd been given, but honestly I just wanted to hide from the ragazzi.
I left the Christ Church after that, having completely lost my tour group (and almost my mind). I emerged onto the streets of Oxford with no map, and no clue how to find the meeting point we'd agreed on. Naturally I headed left when I should have gone right, but it all ended well as I had plenty of time to get to the tourist office, seek directions, and buy a gelato on my way to the pick-up point. I even remembered to find some postcards for my Grandmas too.
I now realise that when someone refers to The Cotswolds, they're referring to a place like The Hamptons or The Cinque Terre - it's not a single place, but a region or an area. The tour description online said that we would be going to The Cotswolds for lunch, which you could pre-book, or else you could opt for a lunch-on-your-own thing. Guess which one I picked?! As it turned out, the tour company had made the decision for us and we had been booked for lunch at some middle-of-nowhere place called The Duke of Marlborough pub.
Don't get me wrong it was a nice place and all, but it was effectively on a main road leaving us no options but to cough up 10GBP for bangers & mash and all eat together like a big happy bus family. I was not a happy camper, despite the gorgeous landscape - which is still owned by the current Duke of Malborough (a real person, who is about 80-something years old. And happily married).
I wish there was more to say about our trip to The Cotswolds, but this was literally all we experienced. The rest of our sightseeting was done from the bus, looking out at the gorgeous thatched-roofed houses and quaint little villages that I desperately wanted to walk through. Oh well, I guess I will just have to come back.
En route to Stratford-Upon-Avon, we stopped off in Shottery to walk through Anne Hathaway's cottage. Anne married Shakespeare when she was 26 and he was just 18, which must have been quite a scandal in those days.
The cottage is a gorgeous example of Tudor architecture and we discovered that 13 generations of the Hathaway family have lived in that house. The last lot of relatives moved out of there only in 1911, which is an amazing bit of family history, don't you think?
The cottage garden is also very impressive, having been maintained pretty much as it would have been in the times. The garden is rich in flowers and plants, as you can see from the photo, but many of the vegetables are species that date back to the 1600s - it's incredible that they've been so well cared for.
The gift shop was also particularly impressive, and I thought it was very appropriate that I buy a copy of "Shakespeare's Wife" by Germaine Greer - a bit of serious reading material never hurt anybody, and it's nice to say where I bought it.
Back on the bus we went, off to see Anne's hubby's home town of Stratford-Upon-Avon, about a mile from the Hathaway house.
The Shakespeare Centre reminded me very much of The Lorraine Motel in Memphis, where Martin Luther King Jr was shot. Weird connection to make, I know. But the fancy new Centre entrance sits right alongside - and is even a part of - the original Tudor property that Shakespeare and his family occupied. In this way it's like the Lorraine Hotel that has been consumed by the new Civil Rights Museum. Neither is particularly distasteful, but both strike me as very unusual tributes to their subjects.
I did not find anything remarkable about Shakespeare's birthplace, I have to say. I did enjoy the lecture that a British tourist gave to a trio of giggly Italian girls when they tried to photograph a bedroom in the house, thereby "defacing a piece of my culture" (or so sayeth the British woman). That pleased me very much indeed.
I took off into Henley Street at that point (basically the High Street of Stratford-Upon-Avon) and tried not to vomit at all the tacky merchandise with Shakepeare's likeness glued onto it. I did find a lovely bookshop with the usual plays and bios and stuff in it, but I bought a book by Bob Smith called "Hamlet's Dresser" which is the story of his life and how he came to love Shakespeare. As with the Greer book, I figured it would make a nice story about when and where I was when I bought it.
By this stage I was almost dead on my feet, and had given up stressing about ignoring tourists and pushy-shovey bus passengers. On the way back to London I even slept a bit, though with a typically paranoid white-knuckle grip on my handbag and purchases.
We all pushed and shoved to get off the bus at Victoria and I was really pleased to power walk through the station to my train home, but hoping to find a bottle of red wine somewhere in the rack - I figured I had certainly earned it.