Trip report: Glastonbury and a bit of the South-West corner of the UK

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Mid May it was time to visit the sceptred Isles of Great Britain for another getaway mini-break. Learning from previous experiences regarding the absolute density of experiences in the UK, we planned less travel and more local exploring this time. This also means spending less valuable time moving from overnight accommodation to new overnight accommodation, which again helps to avoid energy loss. This time it was more South Western areas that would be in focus, as in Glastonbury and the surrounding areas. This post will contain marginal coverage of menswear, but may be useful for travel tips! We’ve previously visited Bath and Bristol, which weren’t as great.

A word to start off with though, about getting around in the UK. There really is no substitute for renting a car. I’d love to say “take the train, take buses, they’re great! Cycle! Walk!”, but as far as I can tell it’s a mess of companies, a mess of pricing, and unless you’ve got oceans of time to spend travelling and waiting, it’s going to eat a chunk of your valuable holiday time. So, much as I hate to promote more travel by car, it really does make sense to travel by car. And car rental is surprisingly reasonable these days. I’ll offer up another observation: A lot of the roads in the UK were made a long time ago, before cars, or when cars were much smaller than today. This can be a challenge, in some cases quite terrifying, as you’re heading down a super-narrow road, hedges along the sides and trees growing overhead, and local motorsport heroes barreling towards you in a road space that seems frighteningly narrow. If you know you’re going to be travelling the small roads, get something small. This time there were three of us with luggage, and a lot of modern roads, so we treated ourselves to a larger than usual vehicle, a Vauxhall Grandland. A mini-SUV of sorts, I guess, but practical, comfortable and space for suitcases.

Flying into Gatwick late in the evening means less traffic about, which is helpful when readjusting from driving on the right-hand side to the left-hand side, getting the navigation working properly and finding the way to the destination. Rental cars should come with a lit up sign on the rear saying “I’ve just arrived, be gentle”, to warn aggressive locals wanting to get home as fast as possible that the driver ahead is going as fast as feels sane and safe!

At this point I’ll give you another premium travel tip: If you’ve booked an Airbnb, make sure to check that the address is complete and can be found in Google Maps. Not checking this can mean that you arrive in the general area, late at night, with no way of finding out where you’re staying. If you’re in more sparsely populated areas, mobile coverage may also be dodgy. And late at night means people are asleep, it’s very dark, house numbers can be impossible to see and you start wondering if it’s possible to sleep in the car. Yes, this happens. Luckily we found cell coverage, managed to Google up a photo of the frontage online, and found the right place. Oh, and I’d recommend you stick to the AirBnB’s run by “Superhosts” to avoid surprises. Airbnb has made it easy for everyone to allow strangers to stay in their home, which is a fine and dandy idea, but people are different, homes are different, and standards are widely different.

Guildford was the nearest town and although we’d heard the name mentioned many a time, we really knew nothing about it, so we decided to head there. A quick Google showed there was a Park & Ride scheme, so we parked and took a bus to the town centre. A pleasant surprise really, as it proved to be a proper little town, in a sort of old-fashioned way, as there were plenty of shops, no obvious empty spaces, no noticeable vape shops and no huge shopping centre. Plenty of old buildings as well, and even a castle with excellent grounds, and no charge to walk around. I tend to stop by any charity shop that looks promising, as it’s one of the few ways for modern man to legitimately treasure hunt.

Stonehenge is an odd place. A global icon, a pile of big rocks, a place of alternative worship, and now a genuine five-star tourist trap. We arrived by road alongside it, which means traffic slows to a halt for everyone to get the freebie look from their cars. Once you arrive at the new visitors’ centre though you’ve last all sight of the stones, as the visitors’ centre is a solid mile away. Which a cynical soul might suggest is to make more people pay the entrance fee, which includes a shuttle bus to the site. And therein lies a point, as the Stonehenge site itself is free to visit, but if you want the “official version” it’s very expensive (to the tune of 50 pounds for two adults and a child). To be blunt, to get closer to something you’ve already seen a million times on photos isn’t as big a deal as it’s cracked up to be. It’s kind of, just exactly what you expect. And a fancy visitors centre with a huge well-stocked gift shop doesn’t really make it a bigger deal (that said though, the Stonehenge X Barbour jackets they sold there weren’t bad if a very unlikely collaboration). The toilets are free though, which is handy. Check out here for more info about Free Stonehenge and how to visit Stonehenge for free.

With the rapidly rising popularity of outlet villages, we thought we’d check in on a couple. Kilver Court in Shepton Mallet has a few interesting brands and as it was en-route we went by. Compared to most newer outlet-places it’s on the smaller side, with a limited number of brands, and sadly it proved not very worth the stop. At least for a professional menswearist. The menswear brands all har marginal presences and feeble discounts, not at all in the original and true spirit of outlets, but more in line with newer thinking of “everyone loves an outlet, let’s bung some stuff there and hope people are blinded enough by the discount idea that they’ll grab some of our stuff as well”. The Trickers shoe section was basically a table of shoes, so definitely not worth a visit. A waste of time really, though WDW did enjoy the Toast section (which used to have some good menswear as well, though sadly no longer (obligtory marginal menswear content)).

 

Kind of meagre selection and even more meagre discount offer, not very impressed, Trickers at Kilver Court!

Kind of meagre selection and even more meagre discount offer, not very impressed, Trickers at Kilver Court!

 

 

Glastonbury proved an absolute delight though. I’d heard it was a bit of a freewheeling place, with more Wicca and healing power shops than you can shake a wand at, and this wasn’t far off the mark. There was a relaxed and pleasant feel to the town though, so just going walkabout was nice. Plenty of hippies, street musicians and curiosa. Our Airbnb hos had kindly pointed us towards some recommended hostelries and these proved to be solid tips. If you’re heading that way, we found excellent food and drink at The Who’d A Thought It and Hundred Monkeys. Naturally, being in Somerset, proper cider country, it was great to be able to sample some top ciders straight from the barrel.

A word about cider: In Scandinavia, it’s hard to come by proper cider. In the wake of the explosion in craft beer though there has been more interest in the traditionally made cider, so matters are improving. The two major players are still selling their rather revoluting cider variants with all sorts of added fruit flavours. Even the more artisan small-scale ciders are often gum-retractingly sweet and horrible. Hence it’s an absolute pleasure to enjoy a splendid fresh, chilled, sparkling and superb-tastning glass straight from tap.

 

Thinking back, we did want to see the Glastonbury Abbey. As we often find these days though, there’s an entrance fee. And a cheeky one at that. If you’re travelling around seeing various places, usually several in a day, it’s just not on to request 21 pounds entrance for a family of two adults and a child. We want a quick peek around, not to stay the night. So a  sneaky peek in through the cracks in the gate or over the top of the wall will do. I find it much more palatable when entrance is free and there’s a voluntary donation box.

Panoramic photo of the view from Glastonbury Tor.

Panoramic photo of the view from Glastonbury Tor.

We did walk up to Glastonbury Tor though, a nice and not too taxing walk in the sunshine. As legend has it, the Isle of Avalon and the burial site of King Arthur (apparently a legend himself). The view from the top is stunning, you can see for miles and miles in all directions. Remarkably English Heritage has yet to find a way to charge tickets, so the entire experience is free, which only makes it better. On the way down we stopped by the Chalice Well, which proved yet another rip-off venture at 11 pounds for three. It’s not as if there’s anything to see there. Oh, ok, if you do believe that it’s a holy well and that the reddish well water is the blood of Christ after the chalice was cast into it. A simple chemical analysis shows the colour and taste is due to the high iron content though, so you have to be something of a believer to buy into the pitch. Granted, it’s not unpleasant to sit in the gardens and slow down for a moment, but at the end of the day, it’s a small park. We did hear mention of the bathhouse is open during the daytime and a popular haunt for skinny-dipping hippies. For the specially interested, I imagine.

After the touristy trappings of Stonehenge, Avebury was something quite different. Much more like the holidays of my childhood really, with a careless pub lunch, a wonky icecream, lots of people milling around, noisy motorbikes and so forth. Again the parking was totally overpriced, though you could park there all day on the ticket (seriously though, Avebury is not a day’s worth of attraction, though you can pass your ticket on to someone else for a small bump in karma). The famous standing stones were there though, and available to touch, hug or take a selfie against. Not as iconic and well known as the ‘henge, but definitely a friendlier experience all around. And if you like your large, historic, mysterious, probably manmade bumps of ground, there’s also Silbury Hill nearby. It pays to read up a bit though, as the historical importance of the sites isn’t immediately obvious from what you can actually see.

The day after we noticed that the Clarks Outlet Village was also very close by, so we drove by there to take a look before engaging in more historical pursuits. Again, it’s the typical modern “outlet village”, which while it has a village-layout is really just a shopping mall by any other name. Its main characteristics are a poor selection of goods, goods produced to be “outlet products” and brands that really don’t belong there at all, and the whole bargain aspect of it is mainly in the advertising. The Clarks shop itself was large and well stocked, but the Clarks Originals section was more frustrating than anything unless you happened to have size 13 feet. No need to return here. To be honest, I’m not sure what I’m expecting at an Outlet place, though there used to be a lot of actual bargains on the previous season and odd stuff.

I realise I’m sounding like an absolute grump. Full on Victor Meldrew. “Can you believe the price of admission?”. It’s so easy to focus on all that is disappointing and terrible, instead of seeing the positive sides of a trip. So to balance things out, I will make a point of mentioning that we had absolutely stunning weather the entire week (cynical voices are no doubt wondering if English Heritage has found a way to charge for this), the places we stayed were better or much better than expected, the rental Vauxhall Grandland was a good choice, comfortable and spacious and traffic was mostly blessedly light. And we had some great food and cider.

Oh, and everyone we met was really friendly and pleasant, even the security guy at Gatwick Airport, possibly the biggest surprise of all.

To add a little final interest to the garmsman, I can reveal that I mostly wore a pair of blue khaki trousers from Trickett, corduroy jacket from Textilburg, sneakers from Crown Northampton and a few white t-shirts. Functional and fine, perfect for a short holiday. Travel light, save overthinking it.

In summary, I’d very much recommend visiting Glastonbury and the Somerset area!

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7 Comments

  • The right Reverand Marquises Donutius Cool 24/06/2018 at 11:19

    As always…a pleasure to cast my eyes over…

    Reply
  • Lizzie 05/07/2018 at 10:52

    I get what you say about the British public transport system, and I sincerely hope it gets better one day, but what if one took a self-limiting attitude to travel, and indeed to other things in life. and said “I will cycle/walk/use public transport and my travelling will be limited to what I can do using those modes of travel” rather than thinking “I want to do this, that or the other and for that I need a car.” It could be the same with clothes – rather than travelling to shops far away, or indeed buying stuff online which then means delivery vans going all over the country at all times of the day and night, we could say – I’ll limit myself to what’s available locally. Same with food.
    I have just returned from a 5 day trip in Somerset, 4 days cycling and one morning exploring Frome, and recovering from heat exhaustion….. I didn’t pay to get in anywhere (can’t afford it anyway) but I still had a fantastic trip and came back much reinvigorated.
    I find that lack of much money in recent years (plus a realization of how much I love cycling) has forced me to change my attitude from “Oh I’d like to go and see that/do that thing” to “I’ll pootle off on my bike and see what I can see for nothing”.
    Just a thought!

    Reply
    • nick 16/07/2018 at 09:45

      Hi Lizzie, I agree totally with what you’re saying, both about a self-limiting attitude to travel and consumerism. At one point though you’re on your own and that’s cycling in Britain! I’m not sure I’ve ever seen a dedicated cycle path in the UK and with the mostly narrow and twisty roads availalable, it seems extremely hazardous to venture out on bike. I see people cycling and can only imagine they have a death wish! Which is a huge shame, as cycling, and especially electric bikes, are a great alternative to fossil fuelled cars. I cycle all year round here, from -25C to +30C, in snow and rain, but mostly I can cycle anywhere I want to go on cycle paths, with no hassle from cars!

      Reply
  • Lizzie 16/07/2018 at 10:59

    Wow. I’m sitting here in disbelief at what you’ve written. Suffice it to say that I will be answering your reply with a whole blog post! I’ll let you know when I’ve done it!

    Reply
    • nick 16/07/2018 at 17:47

      I trust it’s the good version of disbelief 😃

      Reply
  • Lizzie 17/07/2018 at 11:44

    Actually I will leave a further comment here, though I do intend to do a blog post on the subject.
    I think I can safely say that if you go to any town or city in the UK you will see dedicated, or shared use, cycle paths. There aren’t enough, and they are usually not wide enough, and sometimes they are in a bad state of repair, as are our roads, but they are there.

    Not all our roads are narrow and twisty!!!! There are indeed plenty in the West Country where you have just been, and in other areas too, but to use the word “mostly” is totally inaccurate!! In my own area of the Vale of the White Horse here in Oxfordshire we have some perfect cycling country – mostly flat, quiet roads.

    The organisation Sustrans has built up a network of National Cycle Network routes, some on quiet roads, some entirely traffic free, since its beginning in the 1970s. I used some of these on my recent trip to Somerset.

    Cyclists in the UK do not have a death wish…..I suggest you read point 20 on this list –
    https://www.cyclinguk.org/resources/cycling-uk-cycling-statistics#How%20many%20people%20think%20that%20cycling%20is%20too%20dangerous?
    As you read there, people think cycling in this country is a lot more dangerous than it actually is – people need encouragement to get out there and try it.
    Yes, I wish I could cycle on cycle paths a lot more – I say “a lot more” and not “all the time” because sometimes quiet roads that might run nearby can be more interesting.

    I wish that we had the sort of cycling culture that Holland has, and Germany (my son lived there so I’ve seen it), but believe me, we have those who are speaking out and working hard to improve things. See more of the Cycling UK website. And – I have met foreign cyclists here. They do venture over here! Including a girl who had cycled from Germany and was going down to Cornwall to work for the summer.

    If you look at the sidebar of my own blog, you’ll see blogs written by very dedicated cyclists who cycle for all sorts of reasons, including with children. We don’t give up in the winter either!

    So, I hope that alters your view a bit!

    Reply

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