Michael’s Trip Diary – Saturday, May 15, 2010

Driving from Stratford-Upon-Avon to the Chester Area

On our way out of town, we planned to stop at Mary Arden’s Farm, before we drove north to Little Sutton, near Liverpool. We were also low on cash, so after we ate breakfast and loaded Flio, we asked Jeanne if we could leave our car in their parking lot for an hour or so while we walked into town. She wasn’t expecting new guests until the afternoon, so she said that would be fine. We were told by our bank in Houston (one of the big national ones) that we wouldn’t have any problem using our debit cards at ATM’s in the UK, especially at their sister banks, like Barclay’s. We had spotted a Barclay’s the day before, and it wasn’t far. We had difficulty getting their ATM to recognize our card, though. We had to wait until 10:00 for the bank to open, so we wandered around a bit. On Henley Street, by the Stratford Library, we saw a band, Captain Dangerous, busking. They were very good, had an interesting sound.

Captain Dangerous, UK band, busking outside the library, Stratford-Upon-Avon.

Captain Dangerous, UK band, busking outside the library, Stratford-Upon-Avon, May 2010.

Once the bank opened, we didn’t have any problem getting a teller to debit our account for £1,000 ($1,520), which immediately went into our secret hidey-holes. Later, after we got back to Houston, we looked through our bank statement, and found that we had been charged an additional $43.33 for a transaction fee. I think that’s about 2.5%, which seems like a lot (but I have lousy math skills). When you take an overseas trip, before you leave, check with your bank and your credit card companies, and see whether you’ll be better off charging items abroad or withdrawing cash periodically. You’ll need some of both, but go with your cheapest option whenever possible.

It was a nice day, a bit cool (a low of 51, and a high of 62 Fahrenheit), and no rain in sight. We headed north on the A3400, and found the turnoff to Mary Arden’s Farm just a few miles outside of Stratford, in Wilmcote. It was included in the Five Houses pass we bought the other day, so entrance was free for us. We got there just as a falconry demonstration was about to start. It was very interesting. Costumed interpreters explained about the use of birds for hunting during Shakespeare’s time. Only certain people could own certain birds. The smaller the bird, the less you could catch, of course. Some of the birds were very large, even capable of bringing down deer. It was against the law for anyone but the king or the nobles to hunt deer, so the penalties were very stiff for anyone owning a bird above their station. One of the biggest owls is an eagle owl. Their wingspan is massive, over four feet. Here’s a close-up of one, named Talia, with her handler.

Talia, the eagle owl, at Mary Arden’s Farm, Wilmcote

Talia, the eagle owl, at Mary Arden’s Farm, Wilmcote

Minay participated in a very cool way. She got to catch one on her gloved hand. Here she is after it happened, walking back with a contented grin on her face. You’ll be able to see the moment of landing in another picture in her blog post next week.

Minay, happy bird catcher, Mary Arden’s Farm, Wilmcote

Minay, happy bird catcher, Mary Arden’s Farm, Wilmcote

After the falconry exhibit, we wandered a bit through the pasture behind the farmhouse, but needed to move on. We ate some sandwiches at Mary Arden’s Kitchen. The sky began to cloud up, so we cut lunch short and got on the road. We continued on the A3400 until we connected with the M40. We didn’t stay on it long, though. Just southeast of Birmingham, the M40 connects with the M6, and it loops around Birmingham on the northeast side. The area around Birmingham is packed with small cities. With a little over a million people, Birmingham is the second largest city in the UK (after London, of course, which has somewhere between eight and fourteen million residents, depending on how much of the surrounding area you include). The cities immediately surrounding Birmingham swell the region to around four million residents. Driving around it on an M-road (instead of through it on city streets) was our best option for getting anywhere close to the Lake District tonight.

About five miles or so past the heavily populated area, we stopped at a Moto rest area near Stafford, for rest room breaks and some tea. The tea, which we got at a Costa Coffee, was £4.38 ($6.66 – don’t read anything into that number, it was just tea). Costa Coffee is the largest coffee chain in the UK, and second largest in the world, behind Starbucks.

Back on the road, we continued on the M6 until we were almost at the River Mersey, then took the M56 westward for a bit, looking for our hotel in Little Sutton. Google Maps places Little Sutton on the A41, in between Hooton and South Wirral. I’m sure that’s accurate, but we couldn’t find it on our map, or even in person. Admittedly, the only address we were given in the e-mail confirmation was Woodhey House, Berwick Road, Little Sutton, Cheshire, and a phone number. After calling the phone number several times once we were close, following their previous directions and getting lost again each time (three times in all), the Gods of Practical Jokes on Weary Travelers took pity on us and allowed us to stumble across it a little after 5:00 pm. For future reference, it was just off the A550, on Berwick Road West (which, as far as we could tell, doesn’t connect with plain Berwick Road, which would have been nice to know at the time).

This was our fourth lodging since we arrived in the UK. The first three were B&B’s (or, as they are often called in BrE, guest houses). Admittedly, Annabelle’s had been in the downtown area of Bath, and had been run like a small hotel (very vertical, with only a few rooms per floor). This was our first actual hotel, and our first [don’t say “bad,” Michael — okay] “not-so-great” lodging experience.

The Woodhey House only had four reviews on Google+, ranging between two stars and five stars (but nobody was raving about it). TripAdvisor.com gave it a rating of 3 1/2 out of 5, with 559 reviews. 82 of those were in the Poor or Terrible range, while 368 were in the Very Good to Excellent range. It’s now the Mercure Chester North Woodhey House Hotel, so maybe some of those good reviews came from improvements made by the new owners.

Why did we think it was “not-so-great?” It was a combination of things. There was nothing substantially wrong with the hotel. The price was good £76 ($115.52) for the two of us, and that included supper and breakfast.

Our first hint that this was going to be a less than amazing experience was when a bellman (BrE = bellboy) helped us carry our luggage to our room. Halfway through the journey we thought about throwing down breadcrumbs to find our way back to the restaurant (near the lobby) for supper. To get to our room, we passed an elevator in the lobby (which we didn’t use for some reason), walked through a set of double doors, down a long hallway (during which we passed several other double doors heading sideways from ours), through another double door, down another hallway and through a single door on our right, then left around a corner, down another long hallway (where we found another double door in the middle of the hallway). Then, partway down the second half of that hallway, we found another set of double doors on our right, went through them, and up some stairs to the next floor (which remember — this is England — is the first floor). At the top of the stairs we went through (you guessed it) another set of double doors before ascending a half flight of steps (about eight of them) to another level where we found our room.

The room was all right. It was certainly larger than the one at Annabelle’s (the rooms in Ilfracombe and Stratford were both quite large, about the same as this one). It had two long twin beds. The pillows and mattresses were firm, much firmer than our very firm mattress at home. The bed coverings were thin. It had separate bedside tables, and the light was adequate for reading. It had a nice desk and TV. And the bathroom had a gigantic tub, perfect for a good soak (see a picture of it in Flio’s Photo Album for today).

We didn’t expect a glorious view or anything like that, but both of the hotels we stayed at on the trip (this one and one in Windsor) gave us a room with a view of an ugly roof and air-conditioning equipment (because we got a cheap price over the Internet, maybe? I don’t know). Here’s the lovely view we had.

The view from our window at the Woodhey House Hotel, Little Sutton, UK.

The view from our window at the Woodhey House Hotel, Little Sutton, UK.

We rested on our hard mattresses until it was time for dinner, then wandered the hotel until we found the restaurant. Minay had a lovely supper of soup, chicken-bacon mushrooms in some kind of sauce, and roasted potatoes. I had hake (a type of white fish, similar to cod). I like cod, so I thought, “Why not?” It was served on a bed of rice, I think, along with some other vegetables (I’m not sure, I’ve tried to block it from my mind). The fish was cold, bland and tasteless, and so was the rest of it. I remember the bread was good, but that was about the only thing I ate much of (slathered with butter, of course).

Back in our room, we read and tried to go to sleep. It was very noisy in the hall, a lot of coming and going, and screaming children. About 11:00 it got really noisy. I stepped into the hall to ask them to keep the noise down. A woman told me “It’s a hotel. Get used to it,” and slammed her door. A line from Elton John’s song, Crocodile Rock, sprang to mind (“Saturday night’s all right for fighting”). It quieted down a bit after that, and we finally dropped off to sleep.

What’s your technique for dealing with unruly guests?

Do you have any secrets to share about avoiding extra (or hidden) charges when traveling? We’d love to hear them.

Minay’s trip diary for Saturday, May 15, 2010, will post next week.

Michael

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