Double post Friday! Welcome to our long awaited United Kingdom update from our somewhat rainy, consistently charming lodging in Sopworth, a town that even people who live near it have never heard of. That is to say — we are now well off the beaten path, and loving it. We’re here with Sheila’s dad, who is visiting us for the week! It’s hard to believe that he booked his tickets during our second week in Slovenia. But I’m getting a bit ahead of myself …
Cambridge: Scenic Walking & Great Eats
As you have by now no doubt read in our Meet the Host: Gerard post, we spent our first few days in England with Sheila’s friend, Gerard, in Cambridge. Though our time in Paris, and in France was exceptional, at the end of July we spent a whirlwind day hopping over the English Channel, navigating our way from London Gatwick to the Victoria Coach Station in London, and onwards by bus to Cambridge itself. It was immediately a strange and wonderful culture shock to hear the English language being spoken!
Gerard showed us into his graduate level housing, which you could call a “dorm,” but might best be described as “a really old house that had been converted into student rooms”. Because of that, it had charming English features — like being stone-built, with huge ceilings and an enormous shared kitchen (always a plus), as well as stranger things like sinks in each room. (Why don’t we do this?! So handy!)
Gerard rows crew for Queen’s College, one of the thirty-two colleges that make up Cambridge University, and after settling us in, he invited us to the rowing team’s gym, nestled along the scenic banks of the River Cam (… I’m realizing as I type this that “Cam-bridge” is probably named accordingly 🤔 ). As I mentioned in Thirty-One Things I Love, Sheila and I are both used to a strength-training regimen that was mixed in with various other activities like yoga, climbing, and running. Stopping that routine cold-turkey to live out our traveling dreams has put unexpected stresses on our bodies. I won’t go into this in-depth here (saving the full story for a future post) but the long story short is that we were ready to exercise. Our first two days with Gerard, we were glad to join him at the gym for afternoon workout sessions, followed by our chance to shine — making him post-workout meals; introducing him to our classic coconut milk & toasted turmeric curry (complete with fresh bay leaves left out in a box on the street, and clearly freshly clipped!), as well as a first for us — a delicious and healthy baked zucchini and sweet potato falafel. We hope these meals will further convince Gerard in his quest as an aspiring vegetarian athlete!
Cambridge itself is a delight of small streets and a dizzying array of boathouses cloistered on the River Cam. Gerard took us into Queen’s College (we saw the formal dining room where the Queen had recently visited), and around the King’s College Chapel, which is unreal and features an extremely detailed history of Henry VI (who was either a good guy unfit to be king, or ridiculously incompetent; the church inscriptions leave the decision up to you). Touring the colleges is fun but you should definitely be aware that they all charge to get in!
Punting is an extremely popular activity in Cambridge. It involves a flat bottomed wooden boat which is propelled by means of a long pole that is used to push the punt up and down the river. Oddly, Cambridge and Oxford both are famous spots for going punting, but they both have laid claim to which end of the punt is the correct place for the “driver” to stand. While we only ended up punting much later on in Oxford, you can’t go to Cambridge without seeing the punters moving up and down the river.
Note - we have no actual photos from Cambridge beyond the ones we took of Sheila & Gerard and the falafel we made. This is because we were having so much fun without our phones that we left them behind, and it was raining too much to bring our camera around.
Cambridge to Ely By Bike
Gerard lent us two bikes for the leisurely cycle touring we intended to take through the English countryside to the nearby town of Ely. This idyllic sounding ride was something that Sheila found and neither of us thought much of the twenty plus miles between Cambridge & Ely. We’d done long bike rides before, and what better way to enjoy the scenery than by getting out there and experiencing it?
An hour into the ride and I was already sore enough to consider calling it quits. We weren’t even halfway to Ely and the rugged bike path that I had lost track of several times leading us between the two towns was unrelenting in its twists, turns, and bumps. I’ve ridden from Boston to Provincetown in eight hours, done multiple hundred-plus mile rides, and had frequently gone for fifty mile rides to supplement my training for running, but one small fact had eluded me when thinking about those rides — they were all done with bike shorts! We were both in quite a bit of pain by the time we rolled into Ely.
The town itself was awesome and it was there that we found an amazing Turkish restaurant and found ourselves picking our jaws up off the floor while touring the Ely Cathedral; Ely sits up on a hill and the view of the cathedral had totally dominated our approach for the last few miles of the bike path.
While it would have been totally reasonable to take the train back from Ely to Cambridge, we foolishly decided to soldier on. After two days of intense workouts, this bone-jarring bike ride back to Cambridge will definitely remain in the both of our minds with something between fondness and horror. That being said, with the proper biking equipment and attire, I would highly recommend cycle touring from Cambridge to Ely. It was extremely scenic, and we encountered rain, sun, thickets, brambles and more along the way.
Cotswolds: Cheltenham & Stroud
We waved Gerard a fond farewell and headed off into the Cotswolds - an area of England notoriously beautiful and green; the UK uses “AONB” or Area of Outstanding National Beauty nomenclature to designate national parks, and the Cotswolds certainly fit the bill. This green area of England extends from Bath in the south to Chipping Camden in the North is self-described as the “walking and exploring capital of England”, with a huge variety of walks and hiking paths.
We spent a scenic week in the Cheltenham (throw out everything you know about pronunciation; the easiest way to describe the sounding of the name is to tell you how the road signs abbreviate it: “Chelt-m”), staying with Sheila’s friend Grace (Meet the Host post forthcoming). During that time, we were introduced to: cream tea @ Cowley Manor (tea and scones served with clotted cream — better than butter! — and jam) at an English manor; a scenic Cotswolds walk up Leckhampton Hill, through the ruins of an Iron Age fort; an insanely delicious Indian meal made by Grace’s boyfriend’s half-Indian mother; and the constant presence of a nine-week old Dachshund / Chihuahua pupper.
It was great to meet Grace — through her and her boyfriend, we got to see another side of English life for the young working professional, and found their stories and experiences similar to the ones we’d experienced and seen in America. It seems that our generation across the world is trying to figure out how to tastefully enter adulthood with the challenges of record-high student loan debt, record low wages even for those with university degrees, coupled with historically high housing prices. Throw climate change, and high rents if you can’t afford to buy, into the mix for a perfectly decorated millennial cake. In case you haven’t read it already, Sheila’s published an excellent post, Saving For Travel & Making It Fun, on the subject of personal finance in such times.
On a lighter tone, we were fortunate enough to attend the farmer’s market in Stroud with Grace and her boyfriend the first Saturday we were there, and then to attend the market again the following week on my birthday. Stroud is a brilliant mix of classic English countryside views and a developed town, and that combo has definitely culminated in the weekly market. We were able to buy local produce, enjoy fresh food (our first English pasty!), and marvel at the many different varieties of sourdough on display at the market.
Sheila & I also had the pleasure of staying in Stroud for my birthday, with a two night stay in a “Shephard’s Hut” - a distinctly English take on the tiny house. Our hut was located in the hills above Stroud’s proper town, and the walk into town was an enjoyable start to our many excursions in the area. Sheila also, in secret, had arranged with our host for a very special chocolate tahini cake to be made for us to enjoy for my birthday — and enjoy we did! Speaking of enjoyment, we also stopped not once, but twice for dinner at The Corner House after being wow’d by the insane deal their vegetarian platter represented!
We were completely charmed by Stroud, and hope to return there again. Stay tuned for further updates, including our adventures in the beach town of Brighton on England’s southern coast, as well as our (present) meanderings with Mr. Murray!