This month marks the 25th anniversary of Thelma and Louise. Featuring legendary performances by Susan Sarandon and Geena Davis, the film is a testament to personal empowerment and friendship — and though the circumstances of their adventure had a decidedly violent twist, “buddy films” continue to be an integral part of our lexicon and have inspired countless road trips (that hopefully don’t end with driving off a cliff).
Rewatching Thelma and Louise, I was struck by the dynamic that happens between friends when tossed into unfamiliar territory. Do we naturally fall into archetypal roles when traveling, or is there room for the unexpected? The only way to find out was to hit the road. And the best person to do that with me was a blast from my past.
I met Ilene in 1992, when we were cast in a children’s theater company. We hauled ass across the country for nearly a year, packed into a Dodge Ram Van overflowing with sets, costumes and luggage. Ilene and I stayed connected, and as luck would have it (and with the help of social media), she was ready, willing and able to once again hit the road.
After a particularly lonely Valentine’s Day spent creating cocktails with names like “The Bleeding Heart,” I texted her.
“Do you want to go on a road trip?” I queried.
“Sure, where?” she asked.
“You realize they drive on the opposite side of the road?” Ilene remembered my poor driving skills, and after nearly 20 years of relying on New York City’s public transportation, they hadn’t gotten any better.
“I’ll make sure we have GPS,” I promised.
And with that, we were off.
THE DRIVER’S SEAT
We’ve flown a red-eye flight from JFK and landed at London Heathrow by 8 a.m. A quick shuttle takes us to the carport, where I’ve requested an automatic transmission and something “reasonable” in size. Before I know it, Ilene is raiding the Mother’s Day cupcake display and I’ve been convinced to upgrade to a midsize sedan because of the built-in GPS and cost-friendly diesel fuel.
We stand in the parking lot, already loopy-eyed from sleep deprivation and a cupcake sugar rush, and we debate who’s going to take the first turn behind the wheel.
“I drove through the Irish countryside last year with my two bickering sisters and nobody died, so I guess I’ll do it,” says Ilene.
I’m more than happy to let her take the reins. That leaves me in charge of technology, and it’s another 20 minutes before I can figure out how to program the GPS. The last time we were in a car together, we had a TripTik from AAA.
We’re not even out of the industrial park before Ilene clips the curb, and we both burst into laughter like we’re on a rickety roller coaster. Fortunately, we’ve taken maximum insurance.
DO AS THE ROMANS DO
Our first stop is due west: the Cotswolds. Its rolling hills (or “wolds”) comprise five counties and have long been a favorite respite of the royal family. Prince Harry is nowhere to be seen, but we do find plenty of charm in the bucolic village of Cirencester. Considered the capital of the Cotswolds, it dates back to the first century and is filled with Roman heritage.
By the third century, Cirencester was one of the largest towns in England, second only to London. Over time it’s had its ups and downs (not unlike the two of us). At one point the wool trade flourished, but two smallpox epidemics wiped out much of the population. The 19th century saw the arrival of a rail system and piped water supply, adding to an infrastructure that today positions the town as a popular tourist destination.
Our posh accommodations at the King’s Head Hotel are a far cry from the economy digs that Ilene and I shared on the road all of those years ago, and we’re happy to dive into the complementary DIY gin kit. The boutique hotel features a soothing palette of gray and cream furnishings with a few quirky finds worth exploring, including the Library Room and the Vault, which hosts local music and other live entertainment.
Cirencester is a charming day trip to walk among the golden-hued streets, pop into the independently owned shops and visit the Corinium Museum, which showcases an impressive collection of local Roman artifacts and mosaics. The nearby New Brewery Arts is housed in the former Cirencester Brewery and features galleries and studio space as well as workshops, where you can have your hand at ceramics, drawing, painting, printmaking and more. We opt, instead, for a pasty and local beer.
LIVE LIKE ROYALTY
We’ve dipped our toes in England’s ancient history, but it’s time to jump ahead a few centuries to Henry VIII. Built by Edward Stafford, Duke of Buckingham, Thornbury Castle has seen its share of trials and tribulations. Stafford was executed for high treason shortly after the castle was finished (note to self: be nice to your servants or they may betray you). Henry claimed the property and paid a visit during his honeymoon tour with Anne Boleyn (who in 1536 also found her head on the chopping block). The castle was eventually returned to the Duke’s descendants but fell into disrepair until the 1850s.
Today, Thornbury Castle is a luxurious hotel that pays homage to its royal splendor while offering a 21st-century experience complete with Wi-Fi, so that you can brag about your stay via social media. Ilene and I step into our bedchamber for the evening and our jaws drop. The room is decked out from floor to ceiling with brocade and tapestries, and though there’s not much light that shines through the deep-walled windows, the regal purple and gold shimmer nevertheless.
The castle grounds include the oldest Tudor-style garden in England, and the surrounding 14 acres offer archery, falconry and croquet, if you like to party like your predecessors. We scale the 77 circular steps to the Tower bedchamber for a peek at Henry VIII’s 10-foot-wide bed and views that capture Gloucestershire’s rolling landscape. We resist the complementary sherry until after descending.
Click here for Part II, where Roo heads to Bristol and Cornwall!