Somerset, England — So you didn't get an invitation either. You, me, and 16 million other nonentities engaged in willful exercises in self-delusion: waiting for the royal wedding invite to shoot through the mail slot and thud into expectant hands. If it hasn't come yet -- yes, they knowm your surname has two t's --England this summer. In fact, this may well be the ideal opportunity to see the rest of the country which, by contrast, will prove gloriously deserted.
While millions descend on London this July, congesting streets, stalling traffic, and stalemating quick service, you can quietly slip out of the city, claiming the rest of England for yourself. Let someone else jostle shoulders, compete for sidewalk space, and do battle with those most savagely skilled parade-goers: those flag-waving schoolgirls and women in hats resembling small colonial outposts.
To opt for country over city this July is to court the self-satisfied peace of a repentant partygoer. More to the point, to journey to, say, the Cotswolds or the Lake District is a trip one would gladly make under any circumstances. Now thanks to a collaborative offer advanced by British Airways and Trusthouse Forte Ltd., one can do it cheaply, easily, and at great personal leisure.
Travelers could easily retrace, for example, the route I took on a recnet journey through Britain's West Country. Still my favorite part of the country, I decided to return to those spots that literature and history have infused with special life --dral cities of Wells and Winchester, Gloucester and Salisbury; the timeless sublimity of Stonehenge and Glastonbury and Tintern Abbey. My itinerary's personal eclecticism --the imperative ingredient of successful travel -- was kept in check and given geographic definition by one final item. I had elected to stay only in the old coaching inns that dot the English countryside, using them as my base for daily excursions.
The old coaching inns are reason in themselves to make a trip to England. While many fell into disrepair with the advent of the railroad, some of the finest were salvaged in 1903 by an organization called Trusthouses. In the mid- 1960s Trusthouses was purchased by Sir Charles Forte, current chairman of Trusthouse Forte Ltd., to add to the other inns he had purchased to restore to their former glory. Scrupulously preserving the character if not the letter of each inn, gracing rooms with original Elizabethan or Victorian antiques, these small inns are redolent with historic charm. No two inns are alike -- some span back to the 13th century --but all are excellent. Balancing historic authenticity with modern amenities, the inns are run with a familial touch uncommon in today's world.
Renting a car at London's Heathrow Airport, I bypassed the city entirely by shooting up the M40 to Marlow, a small Buckinghamshire town anchored on the banks of the Thames. Within a half hour's drive, I arrived at the Compleat Angler Hotel, a charming Georgian hotel situated directly next to the Thames. Having purposely arrived at night, I unpacked my bags and settled down in what is easily the most comfortably elegant room in which to counter jet lag. The window open, I fell asleep to the sibilant sound of the Thames lapping the riverbanks.
In the morning I was ready to see Marlow, a town famed for three utterly diverse reasons. Marlow, according to the Doomsday Survey of 1080, was the center of a ring of ancient monastic foundations; it was where Mary Shelley wrote her macabre novel, "Frankenstein," and T. S. Eliot, a century later, penned verse; and it's where crews scull, limbering up for the Henley Regatta each July. Marlow itself is a picture-pretty English town, its High Street facaded with 16th-century buildings that house antique shop after antique shop.
Marlow's chief attraction may just be the Compleat Angler, a favorite with English Sunday lunchers who drive from all parts of the country just to sit over a quiet meal and watch the water cascade and thunder over the weir the dining room overlooks. While a bit more expensive than the inns I would later stay in, the Compleat Angler is well worth every penny if only for that sweeping lawn, the wrought-iron garden chairs angled at the water's edge for tea time, and the boats and swans that silently glide past one's view.
From Marlow I drove southwest, connecting the cathedrals of Winchester and Salisbury that dot just below the Salisbury Plain. Pushing northwest, cutting deep into Wiltshire, I spent an hour at Stonehenge, that Druid enigma in stone, before pressing on to my final destination, Dunster, a small Somerset village two hours away.
Perched on a small spur of land two miles inland from the Bristol Channel, Dunster is one of those small villages one hesitates to write about as it's still quite unspoiled. Centered around a 17th-century yarn market -- its oak beams still smelling of dye and pocked by Cromwellian common fire --Dunster village is but a cluster of late Elizabethan houses. Overlooking the village is a Norman castle, seat of the Luttrell family for 600 years and now owned by the National Trust. That together with the village's church, boasting a 14-foot rood screen erected in 1500 to segregate feuding churchmen, are obvious musts for any visitor to Dunster.
The other must in Dunster, though, is the Luttrell Arms Hotel, originally a 13th-century guest house for nearby Cleeve Abbey. Rebuilt in the 16th century, the inn boasts its original Elizabethan beamed rooms, many with high wooden canopied beds. The inn is painstakingly run by the Mann family, whose generosity as hosts borders on the improbable. If you're not careful, you'll never end up leaving the Luttrell Arms.
But leave you must, if only for the day because 20 minutes away is Exmoor National Park, some 265 square miles of heather-covered moors sloping toward a jagged-coasted sea. Cut deeply by streams that snake through the park's basin, Exmoor is a nature-lover's paradise, dense with wildlife and hearty flora. Allow several days to explore the park either on foot, using the many marked walking trails, or by car, which will wind you through hills mottled with slate outcroppings and wild heather.
From the wild beauty of Exmoor, one drives due east towards Wells where the countryside gradually gives way to a gentle patchworking of greens. As I headed toward Glastonbury, seat of the Arthurian legends, the countryside was sweet with spring. Lambs frisked, colts gamboled, sheep wandered in tart green fields. By the time I arrived at Wells Cathedral, the air was shot with the scent of spring lilac.
The most dramatic landscape awaited: the thickly wooded hills set deep on the Welsh border. The Wye Valley, my day's ultimate destination, provided a convenient excuse to drive through Bath, whose elegant Regency crescents couldn't be more unlike what waited on the other side of the Bristol Channel.Driving deep into the Welsh-Hereford border, I was enroute to Ross-on-Wye near the ancient Forest of Dean. But before arriving at Ross, I made my way to Tintern Abbey whose surviving shell Wordsworth immortalized in poetry.
By nightfall I arrived at Ross-on-Wye, a favorite English summer stop. Poised on a curve of the Wye River, Ross is an ideal base for trips into the Wye valley or nearby Forest of Dean, a 27,000-acre royal forest bordered by the Wye and Severn rivers.The Royal Hotel, a white stone inn built in 1837, was where I had chosen to stay, prompted, no doubt, by the fact that it was here that Dickens decided to embark on his famous walking and reading tour.
Walking was certainly in order the following day. Goodrich Castle, a Norman-built fortress partly razed by Cromwellian troops, invites extensive walking.Overlooking the breadth of the lower Wye, the castle faces the edge of the Forest of Dean, object of that afternoon's visit.The forest's 20 miles of oak and beech is pitted with stepp cliffs and coursed by thundering river water. Symonds Yat, a rocky crag dating back to the Iron Age, makes perfect viewing of the forest itself.
In the middle of this yawning expanse is the 17th-century Speech House, formerly a court for the foresters or keepers of the royal forest. Now an inn, the Speech House is a beautifully kept historic building. Furnished with original 17th-century antiques, the Speech House is an ideal spot for anyone wishing to spend a quiet week in a more rustic country setting.
For those who prefer the less rustic but equally distinct countryside, there's always the Cotswolds with their goldenstone villages. The Cotwolds, the pride of Oxfordshire, make an ideal resting spot before heading back to London's Heathrow en route home.
For those not invited to the royal wedding, British Airways and Trusthouse Forte Ltd. offer alternative Britain this summer and fall. Through Oct. 1, travelers flying British Airways are eligible for a special 7- or 13-day holiday plan. For $279 to $389 travelers are entitled to a week's mile-free car rental, available at Heathrow or Godfrey Davis Ltd.'s London outlet, plus a week's accommodation in any of Trusthouse Forte's 200 hotels. Full breakfast is included with hotel accommodation. ($523 to $735 for the 13-day package.) For further information contact any British Airways office or your local travel agent.