Plan in advance
As I’ve mentioned before, I planned mine with Cheryl Bolen’s excellent book, English Stately Homes By Train. I used the print version during the planning stage and the digital version for reference while in England. It’s always a good idea to check each location’s website before you go for updated information such as opening times.
Arrange for a home base
If your trip is longer than a week, consider renting a flat in a location central to the area you want to visit. London (Baker Street) is my choice, but it is pricey, so you’ll have to weigh the price against the value of convenience. On my recent trip, I spent six of my nineteen paid nights outside of London, which added to the cost, but was totally worth it, in my opinion, not to have to carry all of my luggage around with me.
Of course, traveling with others and splitting the cost is a great way to economize, even if you have to find a larger flat. Mine is a studio efficiency consisting of one room, a bathroom, and a tiny kitchen. Perfect for one person or perhaps a married couple.
Be sure to check for amenities before you sign the contract. My flat has satellite TV and Wifi, but no air conditioning. Last year when I was there in May and June, it was so hot I couldn’t sleep. The management finally got me a small fan, which was a great help, and I was glad to see it was still there this year.
No matter how careful you are, there may be unforeseen issues. For example, last year, someone in a nearby flat was doing construction during the day. If you plan to be out most of the day, this won’t be a problem. But if you want to stay home and rest or write on a weekday, you’ll need some really good noise-canceling headphones.
Get a cell phone
My U.S. phone does not work outside of the U.S., but my rental flat comes with one. I didn’t use it last year, but found that to be a mistake. As wonderful as the rail system in England is, there are plenty of unmanned train stations in the middle of nowhere. Last year, I found myself stranded at such a place, finding not even a public telephone, and panicked for a few moments until a kind person offered to make a call for me. This year I took the rental flat phone around with me, and needed to use it several times. (As helpful as Cheryl Bolen’s book is, there are times when you will find there are no taxis at the taxi queue you are counting on being there and you will need to call for one to get to your destination.)
If I hadn’t had to use it, it would still have been worth it for the peace of mind. I’m used to traveling on my own—although this year I did have Squidgeworth with me—but I don’t like to think I might get stranded in some unknown place. The Brits I’ve met have been exceedingly friendly and helpful, but there’s always a chance I might meet up with one who is not.
Get an Oyster card
An Oyster card is an electronic card for use in the London Underground system, which includes buses and some localized trains. You can get the card upon arrival at the airport. You pay something like £5 for the card and then whatever amount you want to load onto it. I bought mine four years ago and use it every year. It’s easy to load the card from one of the machines at each Underground station. I estimate I used about £90 on mine during my three-week trip.
If this is your first trip, you can purchase the London Pass, which gives you fast-track entry to many of the most popular London sights, and an Oyster card is included. Keep the Oyster card for future trips.
Get a BritRail pass
In previous years I simply used my computer to buy rail tickets online and learned how to retrieve them from the machine at the rail station. This year I decided to try a BritRail pass instead—which must be obtained before your arrival in England. I purchased mine from the VisitBritain Shop. I wasn’t sure how many days I’d be traveling by train, but the eight-day, non-consecutive one proved perfect for my three-week trip. Besides being a money-saver, it’s convenient not to have to make a commitment for a specific train and then worry about missing it and having to buy another ticket. For example, when I went to Waddesdon Manor, I simply checked online beforehand to ascertain the availability of trains for the return journey and while there I could enjoy myself without having to rush to make it in time for the train. (I did, however, have to make arrangements with the taxi driver to pick me up at a certain time, since there is no taxi queue at Waddesdon Manor either.)
Consider purchasing English Heritage and National Trust passes
If many of the sights you wish to see are designated as English Heritage or National Trust locations, you might be able to save money by purchasing passes valid for the length of your trip. I purchased a National Trust pass from the VisitBritain Shop, but lost it. Oh well. I always feel good about supporting the efforts to maintain these wonderful-but-expensive historic buildings.
Prepare for inclement weather
It rains in England. Get over it.
As much as we would all love having warm, sunny days for our long-anticipated visit, chances are it’s going to rain. Maybe it’ll just rain for a few minutes. But it might rain all day, and if you’re really unlucky, it might rain all day, every day. Don’t let it spoil your trip. Take a waterproof jacket and an umbrella and some good walking shoes that won’t be ruined by mud. You might not feel like traipsing through miles of gardens in rainy weather, but you can still see the manor house and the outbuildings (if any), and get a few photos of the grounds. At Witley Court, I took a video of the fountain in the rain (goes off every hour).
Frankly, I prefer a bit of rain to 80-90-degree weather. These manor houses do not have air conditioning, so when it’s hot outside, it’s at least as hot inside. But if that’s what I get, oh well. C’est la vie. Some things are just not worth whining over.
Prepare to do lots of walking
You walk to the Tube station. You walk a lot inside the Tube station. You walk from the Tube station to your destination. While at your destination, you walk. The same goes for trains. While you can take the Tube to Osterley, you still have to walk a bit to get to the grounds of Ostlerley Park, and then there is a very long driveway to get to the house. (There is a shuttle, but I didn’t encounter the shuttle until I was almost there.) In any case, you have to remember that these stately manors were built on huge estates, often set back a mile or more from the main road. If—like me—you’ve decided not to try to drive in England, you’re going to have to get used to walking. And paying for taxis for the more inaccessible places. That’s just the way it is.
The way I figure it, walking is good for me. I should walk more than I do. It’s great to be able to walk. I wear good walking shoes, carry as little as possible with me, and take Extra-Strength Tylenol when my back starts to hurt. (And I wear my Fitbit and brag online about my walking, but that’s optional.)
If you are a great walker to begin with and would like to extensively explore the grounds of the manor you are visiting, you might consider staying overnight nearby. Oftentimes the house is open only four or five hours, and the grounds a bit longer, but if you want to make thorough visits to both, you might want to plan for two days or even more. You’ll probably have to pay an extra entrance fee for an additional day, but most places have a lower fee for the grounds only. And if it’s a National Trust or English Heritage site, having the pass will save you lots if you want to visit multiple times.
Consider staying overnight at a historical site
Last year I stayed at Leeds Castle (the Stable Courtyard) and Hever Castle (the Astor Wing), and loved being able to get up early in the morning and walk in the grounds before the gates opened to the public. I also stayed at the Devonshire Arms in Beeley the night before I went to Chatsworth. Lovely little town on the Devonshire estate.
This year I stayed at the Bear Inn at Devizes, which was one of the coaching inns mentioned in my Coaching Days & Coaching Ways blog series last year. There are so many of these out-of-the-way places in England. Seek out a few and enjoy the atmosphere that comes with centuries-old buildings and towns. You won’t regret it.
Consider… gulp… renting a car and driving
Did I just say that? I guess I did. The thing is, there are lots of great places to visit that might be more than a little problematic to get to without driving. At the moment, I still have quite a few to go before I get to that point. But if I do, would I forego visiting them just because I’m hesitant to drive on the left side of the road? I don’t think so. I’ll find a way to do it if I have to. Because I don’t think I’ll ever be done with visiting England’s great historical sites.
But when I do get to that point, I’ll be sure to warn my English friends of my travel plans so they can stay out of my way.
Addendum: About electrical converters…
You probably won’t need them. Yes, you’ll need an adapter plug or two for charging up your electronic equipment, but these days most (if not all) of them are multi-voltage devices. Click here for more information. In most cases, you won’t need to take a hair dryer with you, since hotels and B&B’s usually provide them. Newer hair dryers are dual-voltage and have a switch for 110- or 220-volt electrical currents. If you need something like a curling or straightening iron, you might consider buying one in the UK to use for this and future trips. It’s a lot simpler than messing around with converters and the like. For a toothbrush, I keep a battery-operated one in my travel case, so there’s no need to recharge it.