A few days into a recent 8-day trip to London I was spent. This followed Portobello Road and Covent Garden shopping sprees, a delicious Guinness-oyster pie at Borough Market, a night of clubbing in Shoreditch (the masterful DJ Carl Craig spun at Plastic People), and a day of intensive art immersion (including Christian Marclay’s excellent film “The Time” at the White Cube gallery). The perfect palliative to minding too many gaps and aching blistered dogs proved to be two sublime daytrips.
The picturesque medieval town of Lewes, about an hour south of London, is set on a hill above the River Ouse. Its winding cobblestone streets, lined with locavore-minded restaurants, traditional pubs serving locally-brewed ales, unique boutiques and antiquarians, lead up to the ruins of an 11th century Norman Castle. The town’s charms have attracted many, including Virginia Woolf, American patriot Thomas Paine, and the Rolling Stones’ Charlie Watts, but my primary motivation for this jaunt was timing.
Each November fifth, for the past 405 years, Lewes has celebrated the fire-filled British holiday of Guy Fawkes Night with more fervor and pageantry than anywhere in the U.K. The evening’s incendiary bacchanalia includes throngs of torch-wielding and elaborately-costumed marchers, young men racing through town towing barrels of burning tar, whole roasted pigs on spits and massive bonfires. The holiday, which commemorates a foiled-attempt in 1605 to overthrow the British Government (and is rooted in ancient pagan rituals), is like nothing you will find in London.
%Gallery-111983%The same can be said for the Cotswalds, the gorgeous west-central English countryside roughly an hour-and-a-half west of the capital. This officially designated “Area of Outstanding Beauty” lives up to its billing with gentle rolling hills, idyllic villages and ornate churches built with indigenous honey-hued limestone. Here there are still single-lane roads slicing through pastoral farmlands dotted with sheep and thatched-roof houses.
The best way to take-in the Cotswolds is by car, which you can easily rent in the nearby town of Oxford. Driving on the left side for most Americans is certainly a challenge; but not nearly as treacherous as avoiding the brightly plumed pheasants swooping down kamikaze-like towards my oncoming windshield. My route along the northern half of the area’s famed Romantic Road provided an excellent overview. This included stops in Woodstock where I glimpsed the grand Blenheim Palace; Grand Tew, a speck of a village (pop. 152) with a 16th century pub; Bourton-on-the-Water, a.k.a. “The Venice of the Cotswolds;” and the wondrous Broadway Tower, a small 18th century castle that once served as a refuge for Arts & Crafts movement founder William Morris.
In the last decade the Cotswolds, much like the Hamptons, have become a haven for London’s boldface names. The likes of Lily Allen, Damien Hirst, Kate Winslet and Stella McCartney regularly come here to escape London’s bustle and recharge their batteries. There’s no reason lesser-known individuals on extended urban safaris can’t do the same-it certainly made my Indian food in Islington the next evening that much tastier.
God save the Queen, and London to be sure, but for excursions outside the sprawling capital, God save Britain’s National Rail. It is user friendly, affordable and surprisingly comfortable. You can easily purchase same-day round trip tickets. London’s Victoria Station to Lewes and back costs about $32; London Paddington to Oxford is $42. A rental car via EasyCar, a subsidiary of the low cost air-carrier EasyJet, cost about $75. The rental agency is located a block from the Oxford train station and operates through Avis.