One of the best ways to explore England is by car. Yes, the public transport system in the UK is awesome but there are so many villages that you’ll miss if you don’t go by auto. We wanted to explore the countryside of England and see more than just the typical tourist destinations. And we only had one week to pack in as much as possible. Follow along on our “family road trip in England itinerary” to see what we did and what we would do differently. While there are many destinations and road trip itineraries you could follow, we found this to be the perfect way to visit the Cotswolds from London. You may, however, want to skip the trip to the hospital. Continue reading for more on that!
My biggest concern with road tripping in England was driving on the opposite side of the highway. Derrick did a LOT of research before we started our trip. He looked at images of the roads, general tips for driving on the left side and information on UK road signs. We were surprised to find how easy the road signs were to follow in England.
We booked our rental car through Auto Europe, which compare’s the best rates. We typically go with the smallest and least expensive option. For our road trip in England, we once again chose a small car (some of those country roads are TINY) but we upgraded to a diesel to save on gas money and went with an automatic. Usually we lease a manual transmission, as it’s significantly cheaper in Europe. For this trip, we didn’t want Derrick having to deal with shifting with the opposite hand AND trying to stay in the left side of the road. While it will cost you a bit more, he definitely recommends going with the automatic. We also spent under 75£ for diesel during our entire trip. That is significantly less than we would have paid for gas.
Driving on the left ended up being easier than Derrick thought. While he did keep drifting on the first day, he quickly became used to the difference. Because the driver sits on the opposite side of the car, it made sense for him to drive on the left side of the road. And because I was sitting in what “should” have been the drivers side, I kept feeling like I needed a steering wheel and wanted to adjust the rearview mirror so I could see behind us.
The second morning of our trip, Derrick and Lucy went to get the car while K and I checked out of the hotel. K and I walked up to the car as Derrick was getting out laughing and shaking his head. I didn’t realize what was going on or notice which side of the car he was getting out. Apparently he got in on the left side as he normally would in the US, buckled his seatbelt, then realized the steering wheel was on the other side. We won’t mention that even after a week, I was still trying to get in on the wrong side of the car…..
I think the biggest help during our road was a Garmin Navigation System. We purchased ours in France, so it’s a slightly different model what what you can get in the States. I can’t overstate how having a GPS helped on this road trip. It’s possible to rent one though the car rental agency, but we decided that it was a better investment to purchase our own. Whether you should buy or rent will depend on how often or much you plan to travel. I only missed our turn a few times and during each instance the navigation system instantly altered the route.
Another plus is the postcodes system in England. The Royal Mail has given every deliverable location a unique code. These postcodes are an abbreviated form of address with the first letter(s) indicating the general location. Making it super easy to plug it into our navigation system and head off to our next destination.
Tip – write down the postcodes for each destination on a sheet of paper in advance. This will be helpful when you’re plugging in each stop during your road trip.
One Week Family Road Trip in England Itinerary
Day #1 – Arrival & Oxford
We flew into Gatwick Airport on Easy Jet around 10am. Another option would have been British Airways into Heathrow, but that was more expensive. We also planned an early flight to maximize our time in Oxford. If you arrive late, you will need to add an extra day.
Starting off our exploration of the Cotswolds from London , we picked up our rental car and drove from Gatwick Airport, on what we consider the wrong side of the road. We spent the day exploring Oxford. This was probably the most stressful day of driving. I’m still in awe that Derrick didn’t end up turning right on one of those roundabouts.
After dropping our bags off at the hotel, we parked our car and took the shuttle bus into the center of Oxford. The shuttle bus was inexpensive and we didn’t waste time finding parking in the city or paying an expensive parking fee.
We saw the Bridge of Sighs, Carfax Tower, Magdalen College/Chapel, the Covered Market, Radcliffe Camera, the Old Bodleian Library & countless other sites.
Due to time constraints, we chose not to go on any of the University tours. We simply wandered around the town viewing most of the tourist attractions from the outside. We even saw the College tree from Harry Potter. Under the tree, Draco Malfoy says to Harry “you won’t last 10 seconds.” While you can only see the top of the tree, it’s still cool to pass by. I wanted to see the “Great Hall” from Harry Potter in Christ Church College, but we missed visiting hours. Poor planning on our part If you want to see more Harry Potter filming locations, check times and plan ahead.
I spent a lot of time trying to convince the kids how cool it would be to attend Oxford University. K now has the sweatshirt, but doesn’t seem too interested in picking out colleges.
We had dinner at Bill’s Restaurant. The food was delicious and we loved the decor. I thought it was hilarious when a college guy came in and told the hostess they were having a party over the weekend, so he was apologizing in advance for the noise.
If you want to see more of Oxford, you’ll need a full day. Our itinerary only included a half-day visit.
Day #2 – Burford, Stow on the Wold, Blockley, Chipping Camden, and Stratford-upon-Avon
We checkout of our hotel and started the day in Burford admiring the architecture and letting the kids pick out fudge. I loved the village and would have liked to spend more time there. At 10am, it was off to the Cotswold Wildlife Park and Gardens – the largest privately owned zoological collection in the UK. I’m not sure we saw all of the 260 different species of animals, but we did see rhinos, penguins, lemurs, giraffes and countless more. We spent about three hours here, but could have easily spent five hours.
Read all about out visit to the Cotswold Wildlife Park and Gardens here. It’s a fantastic attractions for kids in the Cotswolds.
After a quick stop in Stow on the Wold, we headed to Blockley and had a delicious lunch at The Great Western Arms. Before heading off again, we walked around the village, even wandering through the old cemetery.
Chipping Camden was the next stop on our list. Unfortunately, we only spent about an hour there. We loved all the thatched roof houses! This would have been a great stopping point for the day. We would have loved to explore more of the village.
We finally arrived at our hotel around 4:30 with just enough time to check-in and set off to explore Stratford-upon-Avon. We saw where Shakespeare was born, his school, as well as where his daughter, Susanna Hall, lived.
I’m pretty torn about whether we should have stopped for the day in or around Chipping Camden or continued on to Stratford-upon-Avon. The best scenario, I think, would have been to continue on to Stratford-upon-Avon as we did, but saved the touring for the next day. However, we were trying to see as much as possible on our trip so sometimes you just need to keep going.
Day #3 – Stratford-upon-Avon, Mickleton, Sudeley Castle in Winchcombe, Painswick & Thornbury
Another busy day! We explored more of Stratford-upon-Avon first thing in the morning and visited Anne Hathaway’s house (the wife of Shakespeare). I found all the Shakespeare history cool, but the kids weren’t that interested. They just wanted to go shopping.
Then it was on to a quick visit of of the cute village of Mickleton. We just wandered around for a bit before hopping back in the car.
Next, we spent about 2.5 hours exploring Sudeley Castle, built in the 15th century and the burial place of Queen Catherine Parr, the sixth wife of King Henry VIII. The story is quite fascinating. We almost skipped the castle, but I’m glad we didn’t. The castle is amazing and very well maintained. Before our castle tour, we walked around the grounds outside of the castle property where K tried to get sheep to take a selfie with him. After our castle visit, the kids spent time playing in the massive play area. We could have spent more time there, but we were on a schedule. Well planned travel takes a measure of discipline.
Afterwards, we walked around Painswick. We visited the cemetery and church and just walked the streets of the village admiring the architecture. Painswick was actually recommended to us by a local, and I’m glad we stopped. I wanted to spend more time there, but not being on our original schedule, we could only dedicate a limited amount of time.
Then it was off to our final destination – Thornbury Castle! The kids have been asking for weeks when we get to stay in the castle and the day finally arrived!
We were in awe over the castle, its history, and the grounds and couldn’t wait to spend the day next day there.
Day #4 – Thornbury Castle
When you stay in an real castle, you must allow time for exploring the grounds and enjoy being a Prince and Princess for a day.
After Derrick, not understanding the rights of a Queen, forced me to get out of my big comfy 4-poster bed, we had breakfast in the castle restaurant. The kids said their waffles were just as good as the ones they had in Belgium – high praise from these little foodies. Then the kids played Hide & Seek in the gardens and discovered a path along the outer castle wall.
I worked in the lounge for a while before we went to visit the town of Thornbury. Most of the stores were closed on Sunday, but it’s still a cute town to explore. While out, we had lunch at The Red Lion. Derrick and the kids absolutely loved their burgers. I had Sunday brunch which was quite tasty.
Afterwards, it was more running around the expansive castle grounds AND the kids even tried archery!! You can’t get more exciting for kids than archery at a castle!
To finish off our day, we had a lovely dinner there. I had stone bass and Derrick, of course, had dry aged beef. The kids enjoyed spaghetti and sausage with mash (mashed potatoes) from the kid’s menu. The ambiance was fit for a queen!
Read all about our review of Thornbury Castle and why you MUST stay in a Castle in England!
Day #5 – Wales, Castle Combe, Lacock & Bradford on Avon
Sadly, we said goodbye to Thornbury Castle and continued on with our road trip. Our first stop of the day was in Wales to see the Chepstow Castle ruins. Interestingly, Chepstow has the oldest castle doors in Europe. We decided against spending the 16.20£ to look inside the castle ruin and instead chose to just walk around the outside of the castle. Then we wandered around the town and walked over the Wye bridge. We learned that the bridge spans the second highest tidal range in the world – a staggering 46 feet!
I would have loved to spend more time in Wales. Originally, we had planned to visit Wales the previous day, but we decided to put it off to maximize our time at the castle. If you have more time, add in an entire day (or more) for Wales.
Driving into Wales was our first toll during the road tip and cost 6.60£. There is no toll west bound leaving Wales. The parking lot by the castle runs 1£ for 2 hours. We managed to find street parking at all the other villages, so this was the only parking fee we paid during our trip.
After leaving Wales, we stopped by the most adorable village – Castle Combe. It’s literally a postcard perfect village. We wandered around the streets, visited the church and walked a trail which looped around the village, past a horse enclosure which took us back out to the main road. We spent about an hour there, but it would have been nice to spend the night.
Then it was off to Lacock to see the Lacock Abbey. We wanted to see some of the Harry Potter filming locations for scenes such as the Mirror of Erised and Professors Snape & Quirrell’s classrooms. If you’re visiting the 13th century Abbey with kids, let them be a junior detective for the day and solve the case of Bizarre Beasts. The trail will lead kids from the Inspectors office, through the creepy cloister, weeping willows, serpents thicket and more. It’s a great way to keeps kids interested as you explore the Abbey and grounds.
We made it to Bradford-on-Avon in the late afternoon, just in time to check-in to our apartment and stop by the grocery store. Now that we had an apartment for 3 nights, it was time to start cooking again. I may have been just a little excited to find Reese’s cups at the store. They don’t sell them in France, so it was time to stock-up on my favorite candy 🙂 I also spent the rest of the evening doing laundry. We pack lightly for a vacation, so it was time to wash our clothes. Without a dryer , you have to plan a couple days for everything to dry in the damp English weather.
Day #6 – Bath
We spent the entire day visiting the historic town of Bath. Instead of driving, we took the train in from our rental apartment in Bradford-on-Avon.
Our first stop was Bath Abbey. The site has been a place of Christian worship for over a thousand years, though 3 different churches have occupied the site since 757 AD.
The highlight of our visit was The Roman Baths. The Baths were constructed around 70 AD as a bathing & socializing complex. We admired the Great Bath and listened to the audio tour describe the use of saunas and baths in Roman times as well as Roman worship and brick making. We also tasted water from the spa water fountain – which I don’t recommend. Yuck.
The kids were able to follow an audio tour designed for the younger visitors, so they were happy and occupied throughout the visit. Lucy even made a bookmark in Latin in the kids activity center.
After lunch, we took a boat ride on the Avon river with Pulteney Cruisers. The 1-hour ride gave the kids a break from walking and allowed us to see some of the fall foliage from the water – we even saw an otter!!
Then we hopped on the City Sightseeing bus to drive over to the Circus and No. 1 Royal Crescent. There are 30 houses laid out in a crescent and you can actually visit No. 1. Lucy enjoyed doing the kids hunt through the house. She had to solve a riddle and find an object in each room. I love when museum’s find interesting ways to get kids excited about their visit!
Lastly, we popped into the Jane Austin Centre before wandering around more of the streets of Bath. There is so much to see in Bath, I highly recommend 2 days.
Read all about our 24 hours in Bath and recommendations on things to do in Bath with kids.
Day #7 – Bradford-on-Avon, Farleigh Hungerford Castle and Bath Hospital
The day started off great. We walked around exploring Bradford-on-Avon in the morning. The kids discovered a little park and Lucy picked up a Halloween pumpkin hunt worksheet. She found a few of the pumpkins, but we took a break to visit the nearby castle ruins and planned to finish up the hunt in the evening.
We drove about 10 minutes away to explore Farleigh Hungerford Castle, home to the Hungerford family for over 300 years. The family has an interesting history. Members of the family were executed by the Crown & one of the wives, Elizabeth, was imprisoned in the castle for several years.
We had planned more exploring, but Lucy fell in a parking lot and broke her wrist. After finding a minor injury clinic, it was determined that Lucy’s break was too serious to be set at the clinic and she needed to be seen at Bath Hospital. A temporary cast was put on, but she had to be back at the hospital the following day for surgery.
Our plan for the day had been to visit the gardens at Peto Garden at iford Manor after our castle visit. Then we were going to head back to Bath for the rest of the day. If we had time, we were going to add in Stonehenge. Please note that you should book in advance to visit Stonehenge. However, I had looked online in the morning and there were still plenty of tickets available. I was going to do something very uncharacteristic for us and just wing it.
Day 8 – Bath Hospital & London Apartment
Instead of visiting Avebury & Windor Castle, we spent the day at the hospital in Bath. Lucy didn’t just break her wrist, she REALLY broke her wrist. She had surgery to set the break and put a wire in to keep it in place. She was in a lot of pain after the surgery, but they finally got it under control. The staff took great care of her, but we spent almost 12 hours in the hospital.
She was finally discharged and we made the 2 hour drive (in the dark), arriving at our London apartment at 10:30pm. I do NOT recommend making that drive at night. The first 30 minutes of the drive are on tiny, twisty back roads. I was actually pretty scared on those unfamiliar roads at night. While Derrick had it under control, I could tell he was bit nervous as well. Once we made it to the freeway, it was smooth sailing. Since we hadn’t had dinner, we stopped for fast food on the way.
Our plan had been to visit Avebury & Windor Castle before arriving in London. These areas will be a priority on our next trip.
Traffic in England: Generally, the traffic on the freeways in England is supposed to be bad. It was one the things we were warned about when speaking with locals. However, we managed to avoid a lot of it as the majority of our driving was on back roads and during off-peak times. Interestingly, we hit traffic around 9pm trying to get into London. We dropped our rental car off at Victoria Station. I do NOT recommend driving in London. Dropping the car off wasn’t too bad, and I think driving so late at night made it more difficult than it otherwise would have been.
Watch where you drive London – parts of the city are Low Emission Zone’s (LEZ), so you could incur a fee if you drive in these areas.
Another driving warning – There are speed cameras all over the main roadways. You’ll see signs for them and our navigation system also alerted us when one was coming up. While we are always careful to obey the posted limits when traveling, you need to pay particular attention while driving in England. On the backroads, watching your speed is also imperative. There are a lot of blind corners, so remember the speed limits are in place for a reason.
Miles Driven: Approximately 367 miles
Cities/Towns/Villages Visited: 17 (missed out on 3)
Total Travel Days: 8
Accommodation: 2 hotels, 1 castle & 1 apartment
UNESCO sites: 1 (missed Avebury and Stonehenge)
Cost Diesel: 72.67£
Train from Bradford on Avon to Bath: 14.10£
Gatwick Express (London to airport): 49.40£
Cost of Medial Care: 0£ I’m still wondering if they will ever bill my insurance (or me)
Lucy’s accident aside, we had an amazing road trip in England. In my opinion, a road trip is the best way to visit the Cotswolds. We were able to visit so many villages and see parts of England that most tourists miss. I would have preferred to have 10 days for this particular road trip. It would have given us more time in Bath, Wales and made things a bit more relaxed.
Pop over to the Cotswolds Tourism website for more ideas on places to visit and what to see and do in the region. A few other kid friendly activities that we didn’t have time for included: Birdland Park & Gardens, Gloucestershire Warwickshire Steam Railway, Cotswold Farm Park, Westonbirt Arboretum, Cotswold Water Park & Cotswold Motor Museum
We’d love to hear your ideas to help with our next UK road trip planner.
Disclosure: We were guests of Cotswolds Tourism. All opinions are 100% my own and may differ from others.
Gosh that is ALOT to fit into a week!
Mind you our motorways (not freeways haha) do connect most of the country. London is never a drive for the faint hearted, I work in and live out so commute daily, I find it a task and I’m a ‘local’.
Like you already mentioned public transport is tiresome and VERY expensive if you use trains. Buses are ok but rarely connect more then a couple of towns.
Postcodes are essential to us here! Especially when you are a community nurse and rely on these to figure out where you are going! Also a point to note ALL main attractions, venues, accommodation and sites of interest have a postcode and unless obscure most take you to the front door!
I would absolutely recommend a couple of places. I was born and raised in Sussex (Hastings) 5 mins away from Battle Abbey (home of Battle of Hastings) and it holds a beautiful coastland! It’s also slightly cheaper but is more remote. Also Kent (Garden of England) is just up the road. Dorset is unique and beautiful and on the doorstep of the famous New Forest (Hampshire). I would also recommend Scotland (esp Edinburgh) which is incredibly historical and stunning!
If you can try spending 2 weeks plus it cuts down on driving and also means you will capture the best of these places (most shut Sunday and evenings esp out of season)!
You’ve inspired me on my road trip around Britain so thank you for that! And enjoy you next visit!
Dana Zeliff says
We like to pack it in 🙂 Thanks for the ideas! We’ll definitely add those to our next visit.
Abigail Whittle says
Can you share what hotels you stayed in? Thank you!
Hello! I was just reading up on your fascinating trip. I’m planning something similar is 2018. With your 2 kids, you do book 1 or 2 rooms? Is it easy to find hotels with family room?
Here in the US, there are usually 2 queen beds in hotels and it’s comfortable enough for our family.
I look forward to your reply.
Dana Zeliff says
It really depends on the property, but we are usually able to get 1 hotel room for the 4 of us. They are smaller than what we typically get in the US, but they work. However, our room at Thornbury Castle was huge. Luxury Family Hotels has a lot of rooms for families.
Apartment rentals are also a great option.
What a fantastic trip! I enjoyed reading all the information you provided about your trip. It’s very hard to find such detailed and informative itineraries!!!
Can you give more information on hotels/apartements that were used on this road trip???
Dana Zeliff says
Hi Pam, I’m so glad you liked the article! I highly recommend Thornbury Castle – the link is in the article. It was one of the highlights from our entire trip. Luxury Family Hotels has other properties in the region you can check out as well.
In Oxford, we just stayed at a Holiday Inn for one night.
We stayed at the Crowne Plaza in Stratford-upon-Avon. The location was good and we unexpectedly received the breakfast buffet for free because I’m an iHG member. I’d only signed up before the trip, so it was a nice bonus.
Our Bradford-on-Avon apartment is here. There are stairs but it was clean and the area was quiet –> http://www.jdoqocy.com/click-7408446-13174388?url=https%3A%2F%2Fwww.booking.com%2Fhotel%2Fgb%2Fbradford-views-apartment-bradford-on-avon.html%3Flabel%3Dgen173nr-1FEg9wcmV0cmlwbWdfZW1haWwoggJCAlhYSDFYBHICeHiIAQGYATHCAQNhYm7SASBib29raW5nLmNvbSBuZXdzbGV0dGVyIGdlbmVyYXRvctgBAegBAfgBA5ICAXmoAgQ%3Bsid%3Dcee074df516edaddf6529590010edf59%3Bdist%3D0%26from_pretrip%3D1%26sb_price_type%3Dtotal%26type%3Dtotal%26
I was highly disappointed with our London apartment after the trip. However, I was recently back in London and stayed at the hub by Premier Inn. There are lots of locations and the rates are good.
Thanks for this. Very helpful on our planned trip. Would love to stay at Thornby Castle.
Dana Zeliff says
I’m so glad you found the itinerary helpful! Thornbury Castle is a fantastic place to stay an there are other Luxury Family Hotels you might enjoy as well.
Let me know if you have any trip planning questions.
We did a road trip through the Cotswolds about 8 years ago. This brought back so many wonderful memories. It’s such a wonderful place for exploring with a family.
Dana Zeliff says
What other places did you visit on your road trip through the Cotswolds?
You managed to see and do so much! Broken arm aside, it looks and sounds like a fantastic trip. I completely agree that you don’t need a car in London, it’s *so* much easier to get around the capital by bus or tube.
Dana Zeliff says
There is so much to see around England that having a car is great. We were able to visit so many places only accessible by car. London is definitely more of a public transport city.
Flashpacker Family says
What a great itinerary…. well apart from the broken arm!
Dana Zeliff says
Ha, thanks. Yes, we could have done without the broken arm.
We are planning a trip to england. can you tell me where you stayed? we would love to stay in a castle.
Dana Zeliff says
I highly recommend Thornbury Castle – the link is in the article. It was one of the highlights from our entire trip. Luxury Family Hotels has other properties in the region you can check out as well. They have great offers for families