I was never a big fan of guided tours. In fact “hate” is the correct word to use here. They’re usually tailored to attract tourists, strips you down of the freedom to explore and always feel pressured by time.
But there I was in a tour bus to Warwick Castle on a misty autumn morning. Determined to visit pretty much everything that’s doable in a day trip from London, before I move out. As my friend bailed, the option of renting a car was not viable anymore. I remembered about a website where people would buy discounted holiday packages – Groupon. There I found a half price guided tour with Premier Tours. Being pretty much my only option it only took just a few clicks and £45 to make it happen. The only good thing is that all the entrances are already included so considering the prices, the tour and bus ride came pretty much free with the 50% discount.
The forecast was good for all week except that day. It started with a misty morning, rain and low temperatures. The only think more annoying was our guide, Allan who despite being knowledgeable, was constantly seeking attention and appreciation. As the bus approached Stratford Upon Avon, the birthplace of Shakespeare, we finally got a break in the weather.
The small town is nice and half day would be appropriate for one to explore it and enjoy the old architecture. We however had only 2 hours. The guide took us to see Shakespeare’s birth house, where he lived as a child, as his actual house was demolished by local authorities. They were trying to keep tourists out. Naturally one would say ” joke’s on them” but now they charge a fee for people to see the land it was built on. The property is a restored 16th century half-timbered house. You can visit the few rooms inside and then head to the garden and listen performers rehearse Shakespeare’s plays. As always there is a gift shop. Stay away from the Chinese crap, but instead buy some raw Warwickshire honey. The price is very reasonable and having eaten half of it already I can tell you is tasty. Certified and much better that then ones with added sugar from high street shops.
From here we were redirected to the school where Shakespeare studied. What is very impressive about it is that even today is used by locals. Some of the furniture is still the original one. Just to think about how many generations have studied there. We got to take part in a short play that brought back to life moments of a pupil’s life in the 16th century and watched a short movie about the Guildhall’s history.
After the school visit finished we only had about 30 minutes free time to explore the town. Not enough to visit the Trinity Church or the Butterfly house which for me would have been more interesting. But getting to the bus in time was mandatory not to be left behind so I had to rush and miss them. The reason why I hate guided tours.
From here the bus heads straight to Warwick Castle, a medieval construction build by William the Conqueror in 1068. However the actual stone castle was rebuild in the 12th century and refortified 200 years later. Today, as part of Tussauds Group, and yes you guessed it, the same one that own the wax museum, the castle is more of a tourist trap. Maze, Dungeons and toys carts for kids, sword mastery classes and eagles shows. Needless to say the visit was utterly disappointing. If you enjoy quiet times avoid the school break. Annoying kids bumping into you every minute and nonstop screams is not what I was seeking for, especially when the castle has a beautiful garden.
Going back to the castle itself, even though it could be full of history, is not much one can learn about it. The access to main tower is done by 500+ one way stairs once every 20 minutes, mainly because of the slow kids blocking the way. From here one can see the surroundings and then continue into an old prison tower and back to a few rooms that appear to be showing how people were living in those times. The more interesting rooms were closed to public. The 2 hours and half given by Allan are plenty to see the castle but not to enjoy the gardens. Shortly after you jump the massive doughnut queue, literally as people won’t move, you reach the Peacock garden where refreshments are available. Seems like a lovely place to enjoy a coffee, if is not school break or weekends if you know what I mean. Not far away it’s a bird cage where a few eagles, stressed by so many tourists, are trying to get a rest. The river Avon opens new countryside views with sheep grazing in the distance.
Soon we head back to the bus which takes us to Oxford. I’m thankful for the schnitzel sandwiches I prepared the evening before as hunger starts to creep in and it was already 3 p.m. By the time we get there I’m full and even had some biscuits. We pass by Churchill’s birthplace – Blenheim Palace; and minutes later the bus stops in front of Ashmolean Museum which it is worth a visit if you are into ancient and modern art and antiquities. It starts raining again but Allan is determined to give us a short tour of the city. However one can spend a day there and I am certain to return on a warmer and dryer day.
Renowned for its prestigious Oxford University with no less than 38 colleges, the city is more than a student campus. Boosting with medieval buildings dating from as far as 12th century, extravagant baroque palaces and crossed by river Thames it makes a perfect day trip from London. Whether you decide to visit one of the Colleges or take a tour in the Oxford Castle, the architecture is just breathtaking.
Again 2 hours spent in here weren’t enough at all to explore the city, but the weather didn’t make it too pleasant either so I wasn’t that upset as that gave me a reason to return. Another full in depth report will follow my second visit but until then, if you are soon planing to visit the city, make sure not to miss The Radcliffe Square and climb the tower of Church St Mary the Virgin for a view over Oxford, Christ Church College where scenes of Harry Potter were filmed ( not a fan by the way), Bodleian Library, one of the oldest in Europe. I usually just like to wander around the streets and discover as I go.
No time for lunch or even a beer at the famous Eagle & Child Pub as the bus is ready to leave at 20 past 5 for the final destination – London. The drives takes us through The Cotswolds, a famous rural area with medieval villages built of distinctive local yellow limestone. But that’s another trip I have yet to do. Perhaps a weekend cycling and hiking is best to explore the area.
The bus arrives at 7 p.m. in London and stops at Gloucester Road and Victoria Stations. Not before Allan reminds us how important the driver and guide were for our experience that day. All in all it was a nice experience and Warwick Castle being such a disappointment I quite appreciated not having to drive all the way there. On the other hand the short time frames for every location was annoying and made me miss some of the attractions. But luckily Oxford is close enough and truly deserves a full day, and not a rainy one.
If you have one option for your day trip from London, go to Windsor and don’t take a guide. Just enjoy the freedom of exploring at your own pace without having to check your watch every 10 minutes. And the castle is much more beautiful and full of history. But if you really want to take a guided tour, then Premier Tours was a good choice and well organised. And despite being a bit cocky, Allen was a good guide.
Guided Tour with Premier Tours : £90 ( £45 discounted via Groupon)
Shakespeare’s Birthplace – £17.50 ( free with the tour)
Shakespeare’s Schoolroom & Guildhall – £8 ( free with the tour)
Warwick Castle – £19 ( cheaper if bought online, only includes the castle – free with tour)
2 x 450g Honey jars ~ £11