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November 12, 2012

WHEEL DEAL CONFOUNDS THE NAYSAYERS



David Ellis

WITH a self-drive writing trip on the slate that would take us from Heathrow to England's Cotswolds, across to Wales to ride their famed Little Trains, back into England for Staffordshire's Trentham Monkey Forest, and down to Heathrow again, mates in the know told us we'd need a good ten days to comfortably meet our goals.

But we had just half that, and were heading into back-blocks we either knew nothing about, or had last driven over a quarter-century ago.

Cut your itinerary in half, suggested one doomsayer. Re-write it entirely, suggested another. Talk to coach companies, suggested yet others.

But the car had been booked, the hotels pre-paid – and most important of all, we'd got interest in our travels from those who mattered most… our editors.

We'd requested GPS when we'd booked a Vauxhall Zafira (similar to a Subaru Forester) through DriveAway Holidays, and felt this would be our time-saver. Not so said the naysayers.

Then my web-hugging wife discovered Select Sojourning Solutions, and John Greenwood who offered private guiding to those who, like us, wanted to cover the most ground possible, learn the most, see the most, and delve into the most – all in the least possible time.

Gwenda fired off an email to which John zoomed back overnight. Yes, he knew all places great and small we wanted to visit, yes he was available, and yes, of course we could achieve it all in our five days. Better still, comfortably.

We explained our change of plans to DriveAway Holidays. No problem: John would be registered as an "additional driver" at no extra cost (even though he would be doing all of it!) and to speed things up they'd arrange with their UK supplier to make our car available directly to John at a depot close to him, with no need for us to be there for either pick-up or return.

We flew into Heathrow on a Monday night, and John arrived next morning at our airport Ibis Hotel fifteen minutes ahead of schedule, cheerfully loaded our luggage, and within minutes we were on the road to Woodstock in the Cotswolds for a nostalgic lunch at our favourite little English country hotel, The Feathers.

And John soon proved his worth as a knowledgeable and affable guide: within an hour he came up with the first of many unexpected gems, suggesting we make a quick diversion before Woodstock into the little village of Bladon – final, and unpublicised, resting place at its Church of St Martin of Sir Winston Churchill, his beloved Clementine and many of his family.

There wasn't another tourist in sight, which is how the locals like it… and why they don't publicise their treasure-trove graveyard.

And we discovered The Feathers now proudly boasted the world's most expensive gin-and-tonic, a GBP23 (AU$30) drop – in the name of research, we were again thankful for having John aboard as our driver.

Despite this dalliance we still made Porthmadog in north Wales by dusk on the Tuesday night, and in the next three days rode the Snowdon Mountain Cog Railway, dropped into the Welsh Slate Museum and Caverns which were another of John's unscheduled gems, took the West Highland Railway to Caernarvon, clicketty-clacked across the Festiniog Railway – and marvelled at John's greatest surprise gem, the extraordinary Portmeirion Italianate Village.

We now had just one day to get across to the open-range Trentham Monkey Forest for Gwenda, a lover of animals in general and monkeys in particular, and Heathrow. Again John, a one-time marketing researcher and consultant whose passion for the histories and cultures of Britain and European countries led him into customised tour guiding at age 50, proved his worth.

Sightseeing back-roads and villages for much of the way we "did" the Monkey Forest, found yet another of John's unscheduled gems in the Wedgwood Factory, Museum and Shop just off the M6 at Stoke-on-Trent, and amazingly were back in Heathrow by 4pm for our flight that night to Rome… with 1160km behind us in five days.

FACT FILE:  Vauxhall Zafira for 5-days through DriveAway Holidays for pickup Heathrow up to January 31 2013 including unlimited mileage and 24hr roadside assistance, from $356.24; phone1300 363 500. John Greenwood GBP200 per day plus GBP100 planning fee, his meals and accommodation: details www.sojourning.co.uk or jdgreenwood24@hotmail.com



PHOTO CAPTIONS:

[] LITTLE known final resting place of Sir Winston Churchill.

[] WALES' famed "Little Trains" – note how the driver just fits in.

[] GWENDA and John checking we're on track at one of Wales' unpronounceable little town.

[] A TASTE of Italy at Portmeirion in Wales.

[] WILD: monkeys roam free at Monkey World at Trentham in England.


(All photos: David Ellis)


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