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31 August 2015

Tuesday Genealogy Travels

Planning a Trip to Ancestral English Towns
Logistics – What Worked and What Didn’t

by Mary Mettler
Wells Cathedral, Somerset

Interior of Wells Cathedral, Somerset

A trip to your Puritan English towns is an incredible experience, and I heartily recommend it! My niece Bonnie and I could not find anyone who had done such a trip, so we were flying blind. Amazingly, we did many things right, but we also made some mistakes. Hopefully, we can save you some time in planning your trip.

This trip is definitely a two-person endeavor! I picked out the ancestors for which we had proven lines and their towns, with the emphasis on towns that still had the original churches. To make logistics manageable, we limited ourselves to southern England where we had the largest number of ancestors. Bonnie grouped the towns into four three-night stops and researched the B&B’s. She also printed out information on the towns and the churches, to go along with my family group sheets and descendant reports.

In spite of extensive bus and train systems, a car is an absolute must. Be aware that the normal cutoff for renting a car to a foreigner in England is age 69. I finally had AAA find a franchisee who would rent to a 77-year old. One of you should be comfortable driving in somewhat challenging conditions, and the other needs to be a superb navigator. I had driven in England and Scotland, and Bonnie was not keen on driving. Driving on the left is relatively easy, and I adjusted to roundabouts after thirty-five of them on our second day of driving! In fact, roundabouts are a very efficient way of moving cars. A good navigator is very helpful at identifying the number of the exit on the roundabout.

Motorways (“M” routes) and most “A” routes are no problem, but many of our small towns were on “B” routes with very narrow lanes.  I booked a compact; but I’d get a subcompact the next time. I always had a death grip on the steering wheel on those narrow roads, as the Brits passed inches by me at 60 MPH or more! And then there were unlettered roads, many with room for only one car with pull-over spots every half mile or so.  Oh, yes, and there were detours on farm roads or on a road so narrow that the brush scraped both sides of the car! I did say “somewhat challenging conditions,” didn’t I?

Bring a GPS. Our paper maps didn’t have enough detail, so a GPS is a requirement. Instead of entering a street address, the GPS requires postal codes, another of Bonnie’s advance research tasks. They aren’t always perfect, but they get you close. We had a few problems with our GPS, too. Once in the middle of Colchester, the GPS tried to send us down a bus-only street, probably a recent traffic change. Occasionally, the GPS created some routes with very challenging narrow roads. These, however, are minor transgressions compared to the benefits! We would not have found a number of places, including the Hertz rental car return, without the GPS. The navigator, however, has to figure out what to do for detours and unexpected events. Thankfully, Bonnie was exceptionally good at saving us, as I would never have been able to do it with my horrible sense of direction!

You should bring a significant amount of patience. Almost every day, we ran into at least one road closure, resulting in a huge traffic mess or a difficult detour for Bonnie to invent. Many of the main roads have only one lane on each side, so the road is closed if there is a serious accident. The English drivers exhibited extraordinary patience and more courtesy than the typical American driver.

We were well-prepared for the ancestral towns, but we planned to do too much. We did have a nice tourist day in Colchester and one in Wells-Glastonbury, but I would have liked a day or two at the beach in Brighton. Driving every day was stressful.

Miscellaneous thoughts – Check with your automobile insurance coverage abroad. Mine, CSAA, provided no coverage; but my Citibank Gold card covered the major requirements, so I had them run a “Proof of Coverage.” I splurged for the option for Hertz to give me a full tank of gas at the end, a wise decision because we never saw a gas station anywhere near the drop-off! Also, make sure you have debit and credit cards with chips in them, as England can’t handle swiping cards. Most credit cards add on 3% fees for charges, so I mostly used my debit card, which had no fees.

We were very pleased with all our B&B’s, and the food was much better than in the “old” days! I won’t list all the great restaurants/pubs and B&B’s, as you can find them on TripAdvisor. I do want to mention our favorite B&B, Coxley House, right outside of Wells and very close to Glastonbury in Somerset. Julia and Mark Riley made us feel like real guests of theirs and went above and beyond the already high bar – lovely gardens, beautiful rooms, tea in the downstairs parlor, a glass of wine if we were around before dinner, a ride to our restaurants a couple of nights, use of a great map, and the best breakfasts we had in England! Here is the link forCoxley House:
Below are some pictures of the house and gardens. 
Coxley House, Upper Coxley, Somerset

Another Angle, Coxley House, Upper Coxley, Somerset

I hope I have encouraged you to plan a trip to your  own English ancestral towns and that this blog provides you with some helpful hints. Please feel free to contact me and have a great trip!

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