Road trip to hogwardy, old-style England with teens in a slim car
When travelling through Southern and Central England, it’s easy to see how J.C. Rowling was inspired to write her Potter books: Rolling green landscapes, towns and villages with quirky timber framed houses, narrow cobbled streets, and school children in dark uniforms. Especially if you go in July, when the university towns are teeming with graduates in academic robes and caps, you feel the presence of history.
Here are glimpses from our summer road trip with two teens who were skeptical at first and would rather have travelled “south to a resort with a lot of young people”. They survived and will probably go with us again next time.
I arrived with my husband, our fifteen-and-a-half year old son and twelve-and-a-half year old daughter in Harwich at the end of June. We arrived by ferry and drove north of London, through Southern Central England, towards Devon. Then, we drove back along the south coast, heading north from Rye in East Sussex, to return to Harwich from where we took the ferry back to Continental Europe. We had made a rough plan beforehand, but most accommodation – small hotels and B&B’s – was found on our way – with WiFi in most places – to the teens’ delight!
Warner Bros studios
Our sightseeing started with a tour in Warner Bros studios in Watford, where we saw scenery and props from the Harry Potter films: Quite fascinating, especially for families like ours with older children. The butterbeer, sold outside, is not recommended, though; it tastes awful! Later on, in Oxford and Lavenham, we came across buildings that had been used for shooting scenes in the films. Actually, it must have been easy to find shooting locations, as England is littered with old picturesque towns and fairytale landscapes.
Clovelly – so picturesque there is an entrance fee
It is not possible to enter this adorable, romantic coastal village in North Devon by car. There is parking outside the visitor centre, where you buy tickets (which include audi-guides about Clovelly’s history) before walking the steep cobbled streets through the village. When we arrived, the visitor center was closed for the day, so we just walked through the village down to the beach, where we tried book dinner at the Red Lion Hotel Bar Restaurant. At first, we couldn’t find anyone there because – we found out – someone had fallen by the waterfall further down the beach, and the restaurant staff was busy calling for help. During dinner, a wedding party entered at sat at the next table (both restaurants in the village are licensed for wedding ceremonies), and we all watched the rescue helicopter flying in and hoisting the wounded up. A broken ankle, we were told.
Thrilling tree top experience
Our children couldn’t care less about pretty villages and countryside, and to make them happy, WiFi in the hotel wasn’t always enough. So, we decided to throw ourselves into Tarzan ropes and wires between treetops in Wendover Woods, Buckinghamshire. It was an adrenaline experience, especially for me who is not that fond of heights! Go Ape Tree Top Adventure can be found in more than twenty places all over England, and it’s not really dangerous, as long as you follow instructions, and actually quite fun.
Wild ponies and wartime history in New Forest
On a one-day bike trip in New Forest, a national park in Southern England with heathland, river, forest, and good cycle paths, we came across wild ponies, a special breed originating from and named after New Forest: Reportedly a friendly and calm breed, but since none of us are horses connoisseurs, we kept a distance, and immediately jumped on our bikes when the horses were curious and drew closer. We stayed and rented bikes at Balmer Lawn, a classic country house hotel in New Forest, with swimming pool, spa, gym, and tennis court – perfect for a family with teens. It was originally a hunting lodge and had been used as a hospital during WWI and location of many of General Montgomery and Eisenhower’s meetings as they planned the D-Day invasion in WWII.
Smugglers and celebrities in Brixham and Rye
The charming towns of Brixham and Devon and Rye in East Sussex both used to be haunts for smugglers. As port towns they were important to the Royal Navy for supplies for centuries. Today, Rye is situated 3.2 km inland because of coastline changes over time. Brixham is still a port town, but warships have been replaced by pleasure crafts. The Mermaid Inn in Rye boasts of having housed smugglers as well as recent times’ celebrities such as Johnny Depp, whereas Brixham’s most famous visitor was Napoleon Bonaparte, who spent several days on a warship there, before he want sent to exile on St. Helena.
More war stories and European footprints
England is steeped in history, especially European wartime history. Every town and village, we visited, had a memorial pillar with names of the local men who fell in WWI or WWII. And before the world wars there were of course the Napoleon wars, the Roman invasions, the Danish invasions, etc. No wonder if the Brits suffer from Euro-fatigue from time to time! However, not all invasions were just bad, seen in retrospect. For instance, picturesque Bath is a reminiscence of Roman architecture, and many English roads lie directly above the original paved roads constructed by the Romans. These experiences made excellent perspective on our children’s history classes, as long as the parents didn’t get carried away and started to give lectures.
For the football fans
The trip was a bit disappointing to the football fans of our family: There are no matches in the summer, and England had just been knocked out of the World Cup in Brazil, so the atmosphere in pubs was rather indifferent. Nevertheless, we had quite a fun auto-guided tour of the Emirates Stadium in London, walking through the press room, visitors’ gallery, changing rooms, the tunnel, and the stadium itself.
Scandinavian special: Kings, Vikings, and a Lady
It was interesting to us as Danes to see footprints of our ancestors around England: For instance, Cnut the Great (Knud den Store), who ruled England in 1016-1035 and is buried in Winchester Cathedral. Some vikings have no doubt been bullies, like those who beheaded Edmund the Martyr in 869 in Suffolk. Other more recent Danish immigrants have made ??positive contributions to the country. For example, Lady Ulla Hyde Parker from Copenhagen (1908-1998), who married into the Hyde Parker family. After her husband’s death, the family was faced by a huge payment in inheritance tax, but Lady Ulla saved the family house, Melford Hall in Suffolk, first by transferring the park to the Treasury, and then by opening the hall to the public and making agreements with National Trust (a conservation charity that works to protect historic places in England). Our children stayed in the car with their gadgets, while my husband and I visited the place!
Yes, several things surprised us:
- For instance, the road system. Roads in England are often winding, completely covered by trees (almost like driving indoors), and they are extremely narrow, many too narrow for oncoming cars to pass each other, except for special crossing-places. Biking is not recommendable (outside national parks): You see nothing because of the giant hedges along the smaller roads, and there are very few bike lanes.
- We were also puzzled to see the well-known red telephone boxes everywhere, and still working!
- The food was better than expected. We avoided fish and chips, but we went to both pubs and restaurants, and we had excellent food everywhere. Jamie’s Italian, which we came across in several towns, was a hit especially among the children.
- The price level was quite high: Kayak 32£ per person for 2 hours (we skipped it); full English breakfast 12£. So bring a fat wallet or a couple of high limit credit cards!
- Apart from Americans, there seemed to be very few foreign tourists, judging from license plates (Americans probably rent) and spoken language heard around tourist attractions.
Towns and villages visited
Our 20 days road trip started in Harwich and went through Wivenhoe, St. Albans, Watford, Wendover, London, Oxford, Burford, Cirencester, Lower Slaughter, Upper Slaughter, Bath, Clovelly, Plymouth, Devon, Dartmouth, Brixham, Torquay, New Forest, Shaftesbury, Stonehenge, Winchester, Porthmouth, Lulworth, Bridport, Eastbourne, Rye, Canterbury, Lavenham, Long Melford, and Bury St. Edmunds.
We are a Danish family, living in the Hague area of the Netherlands since 2011. We have travelled with our two children in more than 25 countries, starting out with backpacks and a whole lot of diapers! My husband works in the financial sector, and I am a freelance writer and communications specialist.
This story was accurate when it was published. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the companies in question, and stay up to date with current events to ensure a safe and successful trip.