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England Beyond The Olympics

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The 2012 Summer Olympics have begun. And for those Americans fortunate enough to find themselves in London for the 30th Olympic Games, anticipation is no doubt starting to build. Certainly my own trip to England earlier this month verified that the whole of Britain is eagerly waiting for the eyes of the world to be on this small but mighty country.

But one little known fact is that the host of this year also claims to be the point of origination for the Olympic Games. Or, more accurately, a small (and quintessentially English) town called Much Wenlock (in Shropshire) believes itself to be the birthplace of today's modern Games.

According to Much Wenlock lore, back in 1850 local resident Dr. William Penny Brookes founded the Wenlock Olympian Society. Since then this beautiful little medieval town has hosted the annual Wenlock Olympian Games. As a result, the 2012 London Olympic Games has given a nod to the town's heritage by making it one of their official mascots.

At Fly.com, this got us to thinking about the many other beautiful, interesting and off-the-beaten-path towns, cities and attractions that are only a short drive away from England's capital. Who knows, maybe the lucky folks traveling to the Games this summer might want to escape the hustle and bustle of London for a day? Or perhaps this blog will serve as inspiration for future travels to Blighty (in which case here are some cheap flights to London that we've found).

Bewdley, Worcestershire
England boasts a number of safari parks and each offers something unique. For instance Woburn Safari Park in Buckinghamshire not only has a 10th century abbey on its grounds but it also offers an award-winning high-wire adventure course called Go Ape. But our absolute favorite safari park is the incredibly popular West Midlands Safari Park. Voted the best family attraction in the Midlands, it gives children an opportunity to get up close and personal with wild animals via the large drive-through safari, as well as special exhibits (like the lemur enclosure). You can even feed some of the animals from your car! And if your kids still have energy afterward, let them loose on the 27 child-friendly rides and attractions.

Bridgnorth, Shropshire
Call us biased, but we think everyone who goes to England should visit at least one small picturesque town oozing in history. And the town of Bridgnorth certainly fits the bill, with its roots dating back to 895. Ride the Cliff Railway from low town to high town and take a walking tour so you don't miss a thing. Or take a step back in time and go for a steam train ride on the Severn Valley Railway.

Oxford, Oxfordshire
You can't go to the county of Oxfordshire without visiting the city of Oxford itself. Known for its ancient university, Oxford boasts amazing architecture, rural landscapes and free museums. Not to mention an old pastime called punting that has been around since 1860. It is also home to one of the coolest hotels in the country -- or at least we think so. A working prison up until the end of the 20th century, The Oxford Mal is guaranteed to give you a stay to remember.

Stratford-Upon-Avon, Warwickshire
To be or not to be, that is the question. Hamlet lives on in the town of Stratford-upon-Avon where the playwright William Shakespeare was born. It is here that you can follow in the footsteps of the great Bard of Avon, by visiting his many homes (including his birthplace). You can also check out a Shakespeare performance at one of the three Royal Shakespeare Company (RSC) theatres.

Warwick, Warwickshire
If English castles are more your thing, you should definitely visit Warwick Castle. This medieval vision dates back almost 1,100 years and it is very easy to spend an entire day here. Just check out the virtual tour to get inspired.

Wendover, Buckinghamshire
Earlier we mentioned the teeny tiny historic town of Much Wenlock. But the population of that town parish (estimated to be just 2,605 in 2001), pales in comparison to the even smaller market town of Wendover. Sitting on just 5,832 acres (24 km²) Wendover, like its midlands counterpart, feels more like a village than a town. But it offers an idyllic retreat and a great starting location for many day trips. Consider staying at the Red Lion Hotel, a beautiful 16th-century coaching inn. And, if you can, ask to stay in the Oliver Cromwell room which is rumored to have been used by England's lord protector during the civil war.

- - Michelle Erickson is the director of public relations at Fly.com and is based in California. A British native, Michelle has lived on three continents and is an avid traveler.