Interview: Touring England with a Special Guest

· 14 min read ·

Sheila: Gooood morning James.

James: 👋 hi my friend.

Sheila: Here we are, at our favorite coffee shop in London, Coffee Geek and Friends, about to embark on a bus journey to Bath! But… this is not the first time we’ve been to Bath… we have some catching up to do on what we’ve been up to since your post Cambridge and the Cotswolds.

James: I think we’ve traveled more around England than in any other country we’ve been to, somehow. Since last writing, we’ve been to Brighton, toured around with Sheila’s dad (!) for a week, and just now we’re coming off of four days in London to head back into the Cotswolds one last time.

Sheila: We had considered going all the way to Snowdonia (which is beautiful from the photos!) but in the end it was a crazy long and $ trip for just a few days. We settled on a new idea to visit a remote area of the Cotswolds, by way of Bath. I should also mention that Bath is known to be the vegan capitol of the UK 😛 I’m skipping ahead a bit here though — it was SUCH a treat to have my dad visit last week, and we have some highlights to cover there!

An especially sunny day in England.  I think my dad brought the sunshine with him!
An especially sunny day in England. I think my dad brought the sunshine with him!

Harry Potter Sites, Punting & The Turf Tavern in Oxford

James: We threw Mr. Murray into the hot seat, as he basically touched down in the UK and then drove us all straight to Oxford. I am quite sure that I couldn’t have done the drive — I can’t seem to wrap my head around driving on the other side of the road! — but once we were in Oxford, it was almost immediately time to go punting! Our punting chauffeur took us around and I think the three of us were all impressed by the depth of his knowledge.

Sheila: I made us go punting in the rain… but it basically stopped raining by the time we started!

James: I honestly don’t even remember it raining. 😅 Punting, again, is rafting in a flat-bottomed boat where the driver uses a long pole to push off against the bottom of the river … and the pole also steers, somehow.

Sheila: It’s a quintessentially English thing to do, and the clouds made it even more classic 😉

James: We got two hot tips from our driver:

  • visiting the Turf Tavern later that night; a quintessentially Oxford pub that can only be found down extremely narrow cobbled streets
  • making sure to stop at Blenheim Palace the next day; located scenically between Oxford and the Cotswolds, this historic residence retained by the Duke of Marlborough was absolutely stunning
Just hanging outside our new tiny house @ Blenheim Palace
Just hanging outside our new tiny house @ Blenheim Palace

Sheila: The Turf Tavern has been frequented by some famous people, such as Bill Clinton (and when he did, he “did not inhale”) and the cast and crew of Harry Potter when they filmed in Oxford. So that was pretty neat to be in the same space and nerd out. Blenheim Palace was a highlight I’d say because it was unplanned and unexpected in it’s majesty!

Cotswolds Tour: Blockley, Bourton-on-the-Water & Sopworth

Martin & Sheila exploring the Cotswolds
Martin & Sheila exploring the Cotswolds

James: Sheila had found this amazing sounding cafe in Blockley, the Blockley Village Shop & Cafe. Blockley is a small town of some repute towards the northern top of the Cotswolds AONB. In addition to the cafe, the town is well known for the small church of St. Peter & St. Paul, where a famous BBC show, Father Brown, is filmed.

Sheila: Next we hit Buorton-on-the-Water, which I once heard called “the Venice of the Cotswolds.” I think all that refers to is the canal and little bridges… which are in many other places too… but perhaps sometimes people in the UK like to pretend they’re in Italy? Either way, it was beautiful and BUSY! We had a nice time popping into different shops and sitting by the river but unfortunately arrived to the town at an awkward time between meals when you could only find tea and the leftovers from lunch.

James: Sopworth is not a well known destination. Despite that — or perhaps because of it? 🤔 — we loved staying there. We enjoyed walking through town, talking to the locals (Mr. Murray made some fast friends) trimming their hedges, and taking lunch & dinner in nearby pubs. The best thing about being in the Cotswolds is getting outside and walking the local trails. The rolling hills and enduring agricultural traditions truly make you feel transported in time, and the unpolluted air leaves you feeling refreshed. Even the rain is scenic when you’re staying in a place like this.

Sheila: I loved this part of the trip. It was nice being able to just relax and decide what we wanted to go as we went along. It was also great to have two nights in one place, as always! After those two nights, we were off to Bath! It was only a short distance away, so we had the full day, and the next morning to explore.

James: It was only a short distance away because Sheila meticulously planned our overnights. Martin and I definitely have her to thank for the trip that we experienced, cruising through the Cotswolds and then easily down into Bath, just below the southern tip of the Cotswolds. We didn’t have a big plan upon arrival, but that didn’t last long …

Bath: Roman Baths, the Royal Crescent & Big “Areas”

Sheila: Upon arrival there was a game of cricket starting to pick up. We made it just in time to see a group of ~15 boys slugging back beers as they finished what must have been a “warm up.” We had not yet seen cricket, so we watched for a few minutes, admiring the crazy work of architecture behind them — the Royal Crescent.

James: The Royal Crescent forms one of the first sets of apartment buildings built outside of the historic walls of Bath and is an extremely impressive row of houses. After gawking at the imposing half-moon of flats, we walked through the Royal Victoria Park into the center of Bath — to the Pump Room, next to the Roman Baths. For many years after the Pump Room was opened, it only served hot water straight from the hot springs that had made Bath the cherished place that it was for the Romans, and while amongst the three of us the hot water got mixed reviews, it is definitely amazing that the water comes up so pure — unlike the sulfurous and egg-like smell I’m used to from other hot springs.

Sheila: We also found quite a lot of live music happening throughout the town. We think that there must be a rotational schedule in the hot spots, as people were ready to start just as others were finishing… we never did read up on this though. We didn’t have plans for the afternoon but knew we weren’t interested in the queue for the Roman Baths. Then my dad discovered a walking tour leaving right from the center of town and we decided it would be worth it! James and I had a bit of an adventure just before the start of the tour, which included running back to the car to re park it, begging passersby for change, and running back (to the WRONG church) to meet my dad. Needless to say, we missed the start of the programmed tour but the universe gave us the gift of Tour Guide Jim, who was supposedly just there to hold the “Tour Bath” sign, and he stepped up to the occasion. Jim took the three of us plus four others that had also missed the 2:30pm start. Not only did he step up but he took us on the best walking tour I think I’ve ever had, and went a half hour over the time advertised. Though typically going over on time would be considered “bad taste,” we were all captivated and enjoyed each minute.

James: Bath — small city, many churches. The tour was incredible. We learned how to identify the social stratification (very important to the English!) of buildings from the outside:

  • which class of Greek column (Doric, Ionic, Corinthian; from lowest to highest) framed the doorways and windows. Doric columns have plain, flat tops; Ionic columns have curling scrolls at their tops; Corinthian columns are topped with elaborate curling scrolls and other decorations
  • how big the “area” is — the space between the door and the sidewalk, which could be home to a small garden or fenced off place. Living in a flat with too small an area would be considered just as low class as having the wrong kind of column!

Sheila: After the long and informative tour, we were ready to check into our Airbnb (which was just a short walk from town!) and make plans for dinner. As mentioned, Bath is known for its vegan options, and so there was a plethora to decide from. We settled on Green Rocket! The meal was delicious and memorable, just as memorable as the people watching. Apparently Bath is not just about the history — it also is a haven for Bachelor and Bachelorette weekends 🍾 We watched groups go by our spot at the restaurant to wherever they were celebrating, and asked ourselves what the original settlers of Bath would be thinking if they experienced the same scene.

The next morning my dad and I had a really nice time strolling through the quiet streets. Tour Guide Jim had said that the best time to see Bath is on Sunday mornings, and he was right! At one point we were at an overlook of the Recreation Field (known as the “Rec”) and an older man out for a bike ride started talking to us. He told us about the field, the plans for building it up as well as the controversy behind that, and shared the history of other areas in our view line. I continue to be amazed by the friendly people in this country but, then again, speaking the same language definitely helps in breaking down initial barriers!

London: St. Paul’s, Hop on Hop Off Bus & Hamilton

James: This was our fourth time through London, but the first time we’d spent more than a few hours in the capitol! First though, I have to mention a nightmare experience we had with 1.

After settling into our second hotel of the day, we went out for a pint and to watch the Chelsea game at a local pub, followed by dinner. Watching the Chelsea fans stream past as the game got out, swelling the ranks of our pub (along with every other bar that the eye could see) felt uniquely English. The traditional English ales — which I have not seen or heard much about elsewhere, beyond the vague notion that they aren’t served cold — get hand-pumped from each tap and are topped with quite a bit of foam, but by this point we had warmed to the taste as well as the temperature. We then settled in for a quiet night, knowing that the next day was going to be WILD.

Sheila: The next day was my dad’s only full day in London, so we maximized our time — from sightseeing to a Hamilton day capper. We picked up the Hop-on Hop-off bus (the OG) early in the morning, from Kensington Palace, and spent the majority of the day riding the routes through the city. I would argue that the Hop-on Hop-off bus is the best value way to explore big cities like London and Paris, and if you do have two days, it’s usually just $5 or so more to add on an additional day. The ticket sometimes has great added bonuses like walking tours or boat cruises. We couldn’t take advantage of these though, as there is already wayyy too much else to see. James, what were your fave spots to see?

James: I really liked the Jewel Tower, not because it’s necessarily very impressive, but it is impressively old and it’s one of the few surviving structures like that because London has had several huge fires. What about you?

Sheila: I was awed simply by the architecture as you move through the city. Also… a little unrelated but we must mention our lunch spot, Dishoom, which was not only an incredible tip off from a friend, but also a safe haven from the lunch-time rainstorm.

James: The rest of the afternoon was a bit of a blur

Sheila: Probably because we accidentally ended up walking back since we couldn’t find the bus pickup spot…

James: Not through any fault of Sheila’s because she led us exactly where our map told us to go, only to find that the spot had either moved or was hidden under massive construction. The real reason it was a blur is because it was also the lead-up to seeing Hamilton, the tickets for which were a birthday gift from Sheila.

Sheila: Without a doubt, one of my favorite parts of this visit and even this trip as a whole was Hamilton. Yes, it was amazing and all that, but being able to take my dad and James to the theater made my heart so full. I know that James used to listen to the soundtrack all the time, especially as he picked me up and dropped me off at Yoga Teacher Training, so it’s something I’ve wanted to do for a while. Having my dad there was the icing — it felt like a real treat and something my mom would have done for us. I also accidentally got us there wayyy early, which ended up being completely fine because we were able to relax and have some pre theater drinks before the show.

Waiting in line, beating the crowds, building the anticipation!
Waiting in line, beating the crowds, building the anticipation!

James: The show was incredible and I think a little emotional for the three of us. I felt like Mrs. Murray was there with us. All in all it was a very full day and one that I’ll treasure for the rest of my life.

Sheila: I agree completely. Though it was my dad’s last day in London, the fun didn’t stop! The next morning, he told us that he wanted to hike the steps to the top of St. Paul’s Cathedral! We jetted off pretty early and arrived before the major crowds. If you plan to go, I would suggest going early, as we did, and going straight up to the tower. If you do this, and save the inside for later, you’ll have more room (and more views!) to yourself.

From the Golden Gallery of St. Paul’s Cathedral
From the Golden Gallery of St. Paul’s Cathedral

James: St. Paul is the patron saint of London, and exploring the views from the two “galleries” or lookout spots on the church’s dome were both exhilarating. The church is not only an impressive cathedral, it’s also the site of a crypt with the tombs of Admiral Nelson and the Duke of Wellington, two English heroes in the fight against Napoleon. Walking through the crypt, surrounded by heroes of England, is a pretty surreal experience that ends when you arrive at a cafe within the church and crypt. We didn’t end up eating at the cafe though, having a more exciting destination in mind. Sheila, where did we head off to?

I don’t know how the big purple chair was available! We took advantage.
I don’t know how the big purple chair was available! We took advantage.

Sheila: Wellll, first we did some very important lounging in these purple chairs near the cathedral. I missed the boat on this but apparently both James and my dad saw the chairs from the viewpoints and decided we must go sit there — and so we did! After lounging a bit, we headed off to Borough Market. I didn’t think we’d have the opportunity to make it there, since it’s a bit out of the way but from the cathedral it was only a 20 or so minute walk. We spent the next few hours sampling and oohing/ahhing at all of the different vendor booths. After that, we had some afternoon tea before sending my dad off to the airport 👋

Borough Market. This sums it up!
Borough Market. This sums it up!

James: We spent the next few days staying in the Notting Hill neighborhood of London. After moving around so much, it was nice to have a home base and a spot from which to explore the city some more.

Sheila: I would say we also got in and out at the right time, as the day after we left was when Carnival kicked off. Looks like a neat event… but also a slightly dangerous one. By Friday afternoon store owners and homeowners alike were building walls and barricades, as if preparing for battle. See more about that here.

The highlight of our days in Notting Hill for me was our spontaneous 2 dinner at Farmacy, a plant-based restaurant that has beautiful space and imaginative dishes. We spent nearly 3 hours here! Our orders: farmacy burger, kimchi bowl, charred broccoli, nice cream brownie sundae, digestive soother. Yes, we really went all out here.

And now we are off to the Cotswolds, to spend some time at a serene little place and hopefully some good hiking and cooking. I can’t believe we head back to the US in less than a week!

James: That pretty much sums it up. Wrapping up this part of the trip comes with no small amount of bittersweetness, but we are also excited to be back in the States for a bit to do more exploring there.

  1. If you were thinking about getting a cheap hotel room, Agoda functions as the budget section of We had a horrible experience with the place that we booked to stay with Sheila’s dad, and the hotel staff proved rude & unsympathetic to our attempts to move rooms. While they did offer to move Mr. Murray’s room, the room they took us to for him was scarcely an improvement from the first: it reeked of smoke, had burns on the rug, and the windowsill was a shattered mess of old paint and cigarettes. When we reported the conditions of this room to the hotel staff, the sole man on duty seemed offended that the rooms were deemed insufficient. Needless to say, we did not stay at that hotel. Worse, Agoda has decided to believe the word of the hotel over ours and so far has not helped with our request from a refund, nor with our reporting of the fraudulent reviews that misled us into booking the hotel we would have stayed at to begin with! Do not book with Agoda!

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  2. One of our days in Notting Hill was used as a “date with yourself” day. James went climbing and explored a museum. I walked and walked and walked and explored Camden markets and various farm shops. At the beginning of my walk, I came across Farmacy and thought about how lovely it would be to end up back there later with my friend James! I knew, after seeing the Farmacy burger on the menu, he would be all in.

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Adventure travel blog by James Simone & Sheila Murray. Travel along with them on their backpacking trip(s) as they actively explore the American West, Europe and beyond:

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