Britain by car lets you follow your fancies

There are other ways to take in the culture and history, but for flexibility, try driving

By , Special to The Christian Science Monitor

My husband looked up from the road atlas of Britain and said, "We can do Hadrian's Wall and Long Meg and Her Daughters in the same day."

Yes, but only because we were traveling by car. Buses, trains, and bicycles were forms of transport we'd considered as we formulated our two-week tour of Britain, but for the kind of vacation we enjoy - numerous spontaneous stops between relatively far-flung destinations - we needed to drive.

Our rough plan - a giant loop starting and ending outside London and taking in a healthy chunk of Scotland - could have been accomplished by train or bus, but the many tempting betwixts and betweens turned out to be the persuading factors for us.

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"Betwixts" were planned stops at places that one or both of us had missed on previous visits to England. "Betweens" were places that we happened upon as we meandered from Point A to Point B.

So, yes, it was entirely possible, on the same day, to investigate excavations of Hadrian's Wall - the fascinating second-century Roman fortification built across England's 72-mile "neck" between Newcastle and Carlisle - and the simpler monument called Long Meg and Her Daughters, whose story is lost in time.

The tall stone monolith Long Meg watches over about 70 smaller stones in a cow pasture near Penrith, less than 20 miles south of Emperor Hadrian's ambitious structure.

For the driving tourist with a lengthy "must-see" list, Britain is wonderfully dense. Pursuing a favorite subject within even a small area can keep you spinning your wheels in one part of the country for days.

Take the roughly 80-mile-square area west of London known as the Thames Valley: A literary-themed tour would take you to St. Albans, where George Bernard Shaw spent his last 44 years, and Pangbourne, hometown of Kenneth Grahame, author of "The Wind in the Willows." To the northwest is Shakespeare country.

Gardens? There are Capability Brown's first landscaping effort at Stowe, 12 acres filled with 17,000 varieties of roses at the Gardens of the Rose in Chiswell Green, and Oxford's famous Botanic Gardens.

Royals? Windsor Castle (Elizabeth II), Hatfield House (Elizabeth I), and Runnymede (King John).

One glance at the tangle of red, yellow, and blue roadways snaking across a map of Britain and a second glance at all the destinations that those colored lines link, and you begin to appreciate the distinction between the words "possibilities" and "possible."

In the course of about a day and half, we made pilgrimages to Stratfield Saye House and Blenheim Palace, the country estates of Britain's military heroes, the Dukes of Wellington and Marlborough, respectively.

We visited England's oldest pub in St. Albans, then drove to Banbury to snap photos of the nursery-rhyme market cross ("Ride a cock horse to Banbury Cross to see a fine lady upon a white horse..."). While there, we breakfasted on the light raisin-filled pastries sweetened by rose water, known as Banbury cakes. On White Horse Hill, we hiked to the top of the 3,000-year-old chalk figure of a horse carved into a hillside, so large that it can only be fully seen from a helicopter.

We loved the convenience of the car - stopping where and when we wished, changing our minds and therefore our itinerary. One small advantage was not having to wear or carry our foul-weather gear. Riding in back with it was a commodious food bag, from which we could throw together a snack, an impromptu lunch, or an in-room supper when we were just too travel-tired to go out for dinner.

Traveling under your own steam means the occasional happy mistake, such as when we inadvertently drove past the main entrance to Bosworth battlefield, near Leicester.

The path we stumbled on skirts one of England's 18th-century canals. We picnicked canalside, watching gaily painted barges ply the waters. Continuing along the pathway, we entered Bosworth Field by the same wooded route as some of King Richard III's troops more than 500 years before.

Not all our driving mistakes were happy ones. To our regret, we ignored a friend's advice to avoid the motorways around industrial Coventry/Birmingham and Manchester/Liverpool during commuting hours.

Another blunder was to imagine that we'd park the car in Oxford and explore the town on foot.

When an hour of driving around imposing academic buildings failed to produce even a hint of a parking space, we finally understood the significance of the Park and Ride signs we'd whizzed past at the edge of town. Pay for a day's parking in a car park on the outskirts of a busy city and hop a shuttle bus into town.

In cities where a car would prove expensive to park downtown, we booked rooms in bed-and-breakfast inns away from the city center. While our car sat undisturbed on the residential street for the day or two of our stay, we walked the couple of miles to downtown or took public transportation.

The British Tourist Authority (551 Fifth Avenue, New York, NY 10176; 800-462-2748; www.travelbritain.org) has information on how and where to rent a car and offers suggested routes, a primer on road signs, and road maps. Road atlases of Britain are available at bookstores.

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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