Gilly Pickup lets the coach take the strain on a journey through history in the West Country
No driving, no map reading, no parking problems. For relaxation, travelling by bus beats driving hands down. Besides, switching from the car makes an obvious positive environmental impact. The Coach Tourism Council says that coaches are twice as clean as a train, four times more energy efficient than a car and six times cleaner than a plane. What’s more, coaches nowadays come with all the bells and whistles; reclining seats, DVD screens, toilet facilities and drinks machines. Can’t be bad then.
So it was with these thoughts in mind that Mike and I took a bus trip to see some of the glories of Somerset at a slower pace. The journey started in Georgian Bath, a city which owes its name to Britain’s only natural hot springs first developed by the Romans more than 2000 years ago. We strolled through town and visited one of Jane Austen’s favourite haunts, Sydney Gardens, with its Chinese style bridges. In her day, the gardens had waterfalls, labyrinth and sham castle and were illuminated at nightfall. While in Bath, a must-do is to step back in time and treat yourself to afternoon tea in the genteel Pump Room. Accompanied by a string quartet, it will transport you to a bygone era of elegance and social intrigue. The see-and-be-seen crowd used to gather here to ‘take the waters’ and socialise and today the ‘pumper’ is still on hand dispensing the distinctive Bath spa water containing an incredible 43 minerals!
Next day it was on to Longleat, a country estate famed not only for its safari park but also for its owner, the seventh Marquis of Bath, often referred to in the press as ‘eccentric’. Well, he does have several ‘wifelets’. His eccentricity also extends to his taste in decor and he has daubed the walls of his private quarters with garish murals: aggressive, disjointed swirls of purple, cerise, emerald and daffodil yellow. Whatever takes your fancy.
Longleat’s Red Library bursting with thousands of books is said to be haunted by an elderly man dressed in black – though he wasn’t around on our visit. Other ghostly beings include Lady Louisa Carteret who treads the upstairs corridor known as ‘The Grey Lady’s Walk’. Staff and visitors have reported seeing or feeling strange shapes and voices, so maybe there is more to it than simply imagination….. But ghosts and eccentric owners aside, my favourite part of the tour was the boat trip across the lake to the gorilla colony. En route a band of sea lions swam alongside, in the hope of being rewarded with some fishy treats while hippos grunted in their mud baths. Anne the elephant is also a star attraction here. This one-time circus elephant was released from her suffering to live out her days in peace and dignity in the tranquil parklands around Longleat.
Back on the coach it was on to Wells, England’s smallest city. It only qualifies for the title because of the fabulous look at me medieval cathedral, located in the heart of town beside the Bishop’s Palace, still the official residence of the Bishop of Bath and Wells. We stayed that night in the Swan Hotel, originally a coaching inn, where we enjoyed dinner and a comfortable night’s sleep.
The following morning we headed for Cheddar Gorge with its dramatic cliffs. Gough’s Cave is a beautiful stalactite cavern where ‘Cheddar Man’ Britain’s oldest inhabitant, dating back around 9000 years, was discovered. It is suggested his death was related to cannibalism.
Our next and final stop before returning home was Weston-super-Mare. It was (almost) all the fun of the fair at the refurbished Grand Pier, with its arcade machines and state of the art rides. The pier’s 1,000ft go-kart track is split over two levels and Britain’s smallest rollercoaster, the Robocoaster is here too. The ‘Sidewinder’, a swinging pendulum ride popular with adrenalin seeking teens, generates shrieks and yells while the Kids Adventure Cove is just the job for smaller fry. Our less hectic but favourite part of the Pier was enjoying traditional afternoon tea in the Edwardian-style Tiffany tearooms with gorgeous views on all three sides. Elegance indeed.
We travelled with the Coach Tourism Council which promotes tours by coach for dozens of coach operators across the UK (findacoachholiday.com; 0870 850 2839).
Article copyright Gilly Pickup, Images copyright Mike Pickup