Stratford-on-Avon stands first on the itinerary of nearly every American who proposes to visit the historic shrines of Old England. Its associations with Britain's immortal bard and with our own gentle Geoffrey Crayon are not unfamiliar to the veriest layman, and no fewer than thirty thousand pilgrims, largely from America, visit the delightful old town each year. And who ever came away disappointed? Who, if impervious to the charm of the place, ever dared to own it?
My first visit to Stratford-on-Avon was in the regulation fashion. Imprisoned in a dusty and comfortless first-class apartment - first-class is an irony in England when applied to railroad travel, a mere excuse for charging double - we shot around the curves, the glorious Warwickshire landscapes fleeting past in a haze or obscured at times by the drifting smoke. Our reveries were rudely interrupted by the shriek of the English locomotive - like an exaggerated toy whistle - and, with a mere glimpse of town and river, we were brought sharply up to the unattractive station of Stratford-on-Avon. We were hustled by an officious porter into an omnibus, which rattled through the streets until we landed at the Sign of the Red Horse; and the manner of our departure was even the same.
Just two years later, after an exhilarating drive of two or three hours over the broad, well-kept highway winding through the parklike fields, fresh from May showers, between Worcester and Stratford, our motor finally climbed a long hill, and there, stretched out before us, lay the valley of the Avon. Far away we caught the gleam of the immortal river, and rising from a group of splendid trees we beheld Trinity Church - almost unique in England for its graceful combination of massive tower and slender spire - the literary shrine of the English-speaking world, the enchanted spot where Shakespeare sleeps. About it were clustered the clean, tiled roofs of the charming town, set like a gem in the Warwickshire landscape, famous as the most beautiful section of Old England. Our car slowed to a stop, and only the subdued hum of the motor broke the stillness as we saw Stratford-on-Avon from afar, conscious of a beauty and sentiment that made our former visit seem commonplace indeed.
But I am not going to write of Stratford-on-Avon. Thousands have done this before me - some of them of immortal fame. I shall not attempt to describe or give details concerning a town that is probably visited each year by more people than any other place of the size in the world. I am simply striving in a few words to give the different impressions made upon the same party who visited the town twice in a comparatively short period, the first time by railway train and the last by motor car. If I have anything to say of Stratford, it will come in due sequence in my story.
There are three ways in which a tourist may obtain a good idea of Britain during a summer's vacation of three or four months. He may cover most places of interest after the old manner, by railway train. This will have to be supplemented by many and expensive carriage drives if he wishes to see the most beautiful country and many of the most interesting places. As Professor Goldwin Smith says, "Railways in England do not follow the lines of beauty in very many cases," and the opportunity afforded of really seeing England from a railway car window is poor indeed. The tourist must keep a constant eye on the time-tables, and in many of the more retired places he will have to spend a day when an hour would suffice quite as well could he get away. If he travels first-class, it is quite expensive, and the only advantage secured is that he generally has a compartment to himself, the difference in accommodations between first and third-class on the longer distance trains being insignificant. But if he travels third-class, he very often finds himself crowded into a small compartment with people in whom, to say the least, he has nothing in common. One seldom gets the real sentiment and beauty of a place in approaching it by railway. I am speaking, of course, of the tourist who endeavors to crowd as much as he can into a comparatively short time. To the one who remains several days in a place, railroad traveling is less objectionable. My remarks concerning railroad travel in England are made merely from the point of comparison with a pleasure journey by motor, and having covered the greater part of the country in both ways, I am qualified to some extent to speak from experience.
For a young man or party of young men who are traveling through Britain on a summer's vacation, the bicycle affords an excellent and expeditious method of getting over the country, and offers nearly all the advantages of the motor car, provided the rider is vigorous and expert enough to do the wheeling without fatigue. The motor cycle is still better from this point of view, and many thousands of them are in use on English roads, while cyclists may be counted by the tens of thousands. But the bicycle is out of the question for an extended tour by a party which includes ladies. The amount of impedimenta which must be carried along, and the many long hills which are encountered on the English roads, will put the cycle out of the question in such cases.
In the motor car, we have the most modern and thorough means of traversing the highways and byways of Britain in the limits of a single summer, and it is my purpose in this book, with little pretensions to literary style, to show how satisfactorily this may be done by a mere layman. To the man who drives his own car and who at the outstart knows very little about the English roads and towns, I wish to undertake to show how in a trip of five thousand miles, occupying about fifty days, actual traveling time, I covered much of the most beautiful country in England and Scotland and visited a large proportion of the most interesting and historic places in the Kingdom. I think it can be clearly demonstrated that this method of touring will give opportunities for enjoyment and for gaining actual knowledge of the people and country that can hardly be attained in any other way.
The motor car affords expeditious and reasonably sure means of getting over the country - always ready when you are ready, subservient to your whim to visit some inaccessible old ruin, flying over the broad main highways or winding more cautiously in the unfrequented country byways - and is, withal, a method of locomotion to which the English people have become tolerant if not positively friendly. Further, I am sure it will be welcome news to many that the expense of such a trip, under ordinary conditions, is not at all exorbitant or out of the reach of the average well-to-do citizen.
Those who have traveled for long distances on American roads can have no conception whatever of the delights of motor traveling on the British highways. I think there are more bad roads in the average county, taking the States throughout, than there are in all of the United Kingdom, and the number of defective bridges in any county outside of the immediate precincts of a few cities, would undoubtedly be many times greater than in the whole of Great Britain. I am speaking, of course, of the more traveled highways and country byways. There are roads leading into the hilly sections that would not be practicable for motors at all, but, fortunately, these are the very roads over which no one would care to go. While the gradients are generally easier than in the States, there are in many places sharp hills where the car must be kept well under control. But the beauty of it is that in Britain one has the means of being thoroughly warned in advance of the road conditions which he must encounter.
The maps are perfect to the smallest detail and drawn to a large scale, showing the relative importance of all the roads; and upon them are plainly marked the hills that are styled "dangerous." These maps were prepared for cyclists, and many of the hills seem insignificant to a powerful motor. However, the warning is none the less valuable, for often other conditions requiring caution prevail, such as a dangerous turn on a hill or a sharp descent into a village street. Then there is a set of books, four in number, published by an Edinburgh house and illustrated by profile plans, covering about thirty thousand miles of road in England and Scotland. These show the exact gradients and supply information in regard to the surface of the roads and their general characteristics. Besides this, the "objects of interest" scattered along any particular piece of road are given in brief - information at once so desirable and complete as to be a revelation to an American. There are sign-boards at nearly every crossing; only in some of the more retired districts did we find the crossroads unmarked. With such advantages as these, it is easily seen that a tour of Britain by a comparative stranger is not difficult; that a chauffeur or a guide posted on the roads is not at all necessary. The average tourist, with the exercise of ordinary intelligence and a little patience, can get about any part of the country without difficulty. One of the greatest troubles we found was to strike the right road in leaving a town of considerable size, but this was overcome by the extreme willingness of any policeman or native to give complete information - often so much in detail as to be rather embarrassing. The hundreds of people from whom we sought assistance in regard to the roads were without exception most cheerful and willing compliants, and in many places people who appeared to be substantial citizens volunteered information when they saw us stop at the town crossing to consult our maps. In getting about the country, little difficulty or confusion will be experienced.
Generally speaking, the hotel accommodations in the provincial towns throughout England and Scotland are surprisingly good. Of course there is a spice of adventure in stopping occasionally at one of the small wayside inns or at one of the old hostelries more famous for its associations than for comfort, but to one who demands first-class service and accommodations, a little of this will go a long way. Generally it can be so planned that towns with strictly good hotel accommodations can be reached for the night. Occasionally an unusually comfortable and well-ordered hotel will tempt the motorist to tarry a day or two and possibly to make excursions in the vicinity. Such hotels we found at Chester and York, for instance. The country hotel-keeper in Britain is waking up to the importance of motor travel. Already most of the hotels were prepared to take care of this class of tourists, and in many others improvements were under way. It is safe to say that in the course of two or three years, at the farthest, there will be little to be desired in the direction of good accommodations in the better towns. Rates at these hotels are not low by any means - at least for the motorist. It is generally assumed that a man who is in possession of an automobile is able to pay his bills, and charges and fees are exacted in accordance with this idea. There is, of course, a wide variation in this particular, and taking it right through, the rates at the best hotels would not be called exorbitant. The Motor Club of Great Britain and Ireland have many especially designated hotels where the members of this association are given a discount. These are not in every case the best in the town, and we generally found Baedeker's Hand Book the most reliable guide as to the relative merits of the hotels. It is a poorly appointed hotel that does not now have a garage of some sort, and in many cases, necessary supplies are available. Some even go so far as to charge the storage batteries, or "accumulators," as they are always called in Britain, and to afford facilities for the motorist to make repairs.
It goes without saying that a motor tour should be planned in advance as carefully as possible. If one starts out in a haphazard way, it takes him a long time to find his bearings, and much valuable time is lost. Before crossing the water, it would be well to become posted as thoroughly as possible on what one desires to see and to gain a general idea of the road from the maps. Another valuable adjunct will be a membership in the A.C.A. or a letter from the American motor associations, with an introduction to the Secretary of the Motor Union of Great Britain and Ireland. In this manner can be secured much valuable information as to the main traveled routes; but after all, if the tourist is going to get the most out of his trip, he will have to come down to a careful study of the country and depend partly on the guide-books but more upon his own knowledge of the historical and literary landmarks throughout the Kingdom.
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