Our guide to Buckingham, Blenheim, Banbury and St Albans

The UK has so much more to offer than just London, even though the capital is such a natural draw card for visitors. 

We love making the most of our time in England by tagging on as many places to see as possible while we’re visiting friends and family around the country.

This trip, we’re back over in Buckingham to see my sister, then on to Banbury and St Albans to catch up with mates – some of whom we haven’t seen for over a decade.

We hope you enjoy this quick guide to these beautiful places that are so typical of England in their own special way.

Cheers – Jim & Christina xx

Prego Buckingham, UK

Our first stop when we get to Buckingham – almost before we have chance to say hello to my sister – is dinner. I love her priorities. It’s never been clearer that we’re related!

We’re at a firm favourite for Bucks: Prego. This Italian restaurant, right in the middle of town in one of the old buildings on the high street, is always a win.

The food is excellent (my meatball calzone in the background here is impressive to say the least), the service is friendly and professional, and the atmosphere is relaxed and fun.

Soon, we’re waddling back to my sister’s feeling full and happy to be reunited.

This morning, we’ve come back to the pretty town of Woodstock on the borders of the Cotswolds. It has an undeniable charm that brings people from far and wide.

This cute little interiors shop was once the house of Edmond Hiorne – the town clerk. He lived here in 1607 and was dismissed with ignominy by parliament for his devoted loyalty to King Charles I, who caused the English Civil War.

The war cost Hiorne his job and Charles his head, but Hiorne was reinstated by Charles II once the rebellion had been quashed in 1651 and the monarchy was restored.

Woodstock is full of beautiful buildings and doorways that delight. There’s also plenty of good food to find here too, and we head back to our favourite spot – Hampers of Woodstock – for a spot of brunch.

Blenheim Palace - Queen's Lake, Grand Bridge and palace

Our next stop is a short walk away. We’ve come back to the grandeur of Blenheim Palace and its expansive grounds to see a bit more of this historic landmark.

Last year, we spent more time inside the palace, learning about Churchill’s upbringing here.

This time, we’re keen to explore more outside the incredible stately home that was modelled on the Palace of Versailles. You can just see it here in the distance across the Queen Pool and Vanbrugh’s Grand Bridge, which are all part of the huge man-made lake that surrounds the eastern side of the estate.

Blenheim Palace Pleasure Gardens hedge maze

We make our way to Blenheim Palace’s Pleasure Gardens – a walled garden at the far side of the grounds. Here you’ll find an impressive hedge maze that’s like something out of a film. The best hedge maze we’ve ever been in.

There are also areas to sit and relax, picnic spots and also a butterfly house, though only my sister and I go in. Christina’s not a fan.

Blenheim Palace Pleasure Gardens butterfly house

I can see why Christina doesn’t want to come in – she doesn’t like how the butterflies flap and flit so close to your face, and the ceiling’s quite low. It’s warm in here too, to keep a tropical climate.

Although it’s lovely to see these beautiful butterflies up close, I’m glad Christina didn’t try to grin and bear it. She wouldn’t have enjoyed it.

Blenheim Palace Bladon Bridge

After the Pleasure Gardens, we all walk across to the top end of the lake to see the Bladon Bridge. This area was closed last year while they repaired and renovated the brickwork. They also found a hidden chamber within the bridge no one knew about, which is pretty cool.

The Bladon Bridge is absolutely stunning and well worth the walk.

Blenheim Palace wally trolley

Back at the Pleasure Gardens, we all hop on the little train that takes us through the parklands to Blenheim Palace. It’s only about £1.50 each and saves our legs from a hike back to the entrance.

My sister’s smiling here, but she’s not impressed with me. I keep rocking the train – though I’m pretty sure she started it!

Pinto Lounge, Banbury

Our next stop after saying goodbye to my sister is to Banbury. We’re here to see my mate Mark and his lovely family. We haven’t seen these guys in over 11 years, but it feels like only last week that we were together.

After an epic barbecue last night and meeting his three beautiful daughters, we’re all ready for a bite to eat.

We’re having breakfast at the Pinto Lounge – one of Mark and his lovely wife Sally’s favourites – and an institution here in Banbury. It’s been here for years and has maintained its quality and atmosphere, which is no mean task.

The food here is also excellent. Mark and I have both gone for the Lounge Breakfast, which features locally sourced sausages and bacon.

This is the first time in Banbury for me and Christina, so Mark and Sally are showing around. It’s a lovely town with some fascinating history to its buildings.

The Reindeer (as Ye Olde Reine Deer Inn is known) has been an inn since Oliver Cromwell’s time – and probably even earlier. In fact there’s a chance the leader of the English Civil War may have stayed here while holding the old Castle of Banbury under siege in 1644 and 1646.

It’s remarkable to think that this pub has stood here for at least 400 years.

Banbury Cross statue

We also have a stroll up to Banbury Cross. I have to be honest, I didn’t think this was a real place. I thought it was just part of a nursery rhyme.

It turns out it is a real place and even has a statue in a nod to the old rhyme, famous throughout the English-speaking world:

Ride a cock horse to Banbury Cross,
To see a fine lady on a white horse.
With rings on her fingers and bells on her toes,
She shall have music wherever she goes.

Banbury Cross and statue

There are quite a few different versions to this rhyme and even more interpretations, but the statue and the monument marking ‘Banbury Cross’ are full of interesting details and stories in themselves.

At the site of the statue of the fine lady, there’s a sign explaining elements of it and its history. Click here or on the picture above to see the sign.

It’s lovely to see Mark and Sally again. I’m sure it won’t be long before we’re back in Banbury. Though I hope he gets the white shoe memo next time. Must’ve been quite embarrassing for him!

We also have to give a quick shout-out to our new friend who lives with Mark, Sally, Miss I, Miss S and Miss H – and Bertie the cat of course – is Fred! Quite possibly the cutest, fluffiest little idiot you’ll ever meet.

And who totally has our hearts.

Mad Squirrel Brewery beers, St Albans

Our next and final stop before we head back home (which is what we call our friends’ Clare and Dave’s house these days!) is at St Albans.

This ancient town, older than London, has so many things going for it. Not least by a long shot, it’s home to our friends Charlotte, Alex and their beautiful little girl.

We arrive just before beer O’ clock and Charlotte takes us to a very cool micro-brewery and bar – Mad Squirrel. They have an awesome range of sours, IPAs, pale ales, lagers… you name it.

Per Tutti restaurant, St Albans

For dinner, we head further into St Albans to Per Tutti, an excellent Italian restaurant that has a surprising (and encouragingly) large number of Italian patrons.

I immediately order the melanzane parmigiana, which is superb. It’s certainly not ‘per tutti’ – it’s only for me!

Christina’s fettuccini pesto rosso and Charlotte’s pizza diavola are equally delicious and un-shared!

St Albans Cathedral

After a good night’s sleep, Christina, Charlotte and I head back into St Albans to check out the cathedral. It’s a stunning building and full of history.

We’ve timed our visit a little poorly though – today they’re tuning the church organ, which is very loud and annoying, hence Christina’s ‘fingers-in-ears’ pose.

St Albans Cathedral dress-up

One excellent thing we do discover on our way round this cathedral, which has stood here for many hundreds of years, is this dress-up section.

Of course we have a go!

St Albans mosaic

Once we’ve taken as much of the organ tuning as we could bear, we’re off to find the hidden and much-overlooked Roman mosaic and hypocaust of St Albans.

Across the field from the cathedral in a building hidden by a glade of trees is this remarkable relic. This floor is all that remains of what was once a Roman villa.

The hole you can see is where the under-floor heating would have once been.

Six Bells pub, St Albans

Since we’re nearby, we carry on our walk to the outer parts of St Albans and where the ancient city of Verulamium once stood. We’re on the hunt for another Roman relic, but we decide it’s time for food first.

The Six Bells St Michaels Free House is exactly what we’re looking for. Cosy interior: tick. Good beers on tap: tick. Big beer garden: tick!

Six Bells pub, St Albans - cheese and bacon burger

And an epic burger on the menu: tick! This half-pounder monster made from locally sourced prime steak mince has an option of adding cheese and bacon, which is an obvious yes.

And there’s nothing stopping you from cramming one of the gigantic onion rings in there too. I have no idea or memory what Christina or Charlotte ordered, as you can imagine.

Six Bells pub, St Albans - fireplace

If there was anything more English than the look of this pub, I’d like to see it. From the horse brass and the copper around the mantlepiece to the fire extinguisher next to the fireplace, it’s perfect.

And the matching pair of antique shotguns on the wall is about as Lock Stock as you can get!

St Albans - gatehouse

After lunch, we go on the hunt for more of the hidden Roman treasure trail of St Albans. Not many people seem to know there’s an ancient Roman amphitheatre tucked away in the fields behind the modern-day town.

This building marks the start of the archaeological site, but is in fact just someone’s house. The Roman site proper is through a gate and costs £1.50 to visit.

St Albans - Roman amphitheatre

The amphitheatre is fascinating and full of details the scientists and historians have gleaned from the excavations. It seems the building would have been a focal point of the town here and would have held up to about 7,000 people.

Today, the ruins are still used for concerts and performances as you as see from the stage that’s set in the middle.

You’d have thought there would be lots of sites like this around Britain, but we’re surprised to learn that this one in St Albans is the only one that’s still visible now. The rest have been lost to the sands of time or were destroyed after the Romans had left the island.

Back at Charlotte’s house, we catch up with her beautiful little girl before we head out again for dinner.

It seems St Albans has become a magnet for our friends. Two more mates from Sydney have moved here – Andy and Fran – so we’re at their house for dinner: a barbecue for the ages.

St Albans

It’s been a wonderful week of catching up with friends and family, and being able to explore more of the English countryside we always took for granted when we lived here.

We hope you’ve enjoyed this Weekly Edition as much as we have.

Cheers – Jim & Christina xx

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