VACATION TOUR OF
ENGLAND AND SCOTLAND,
--TWO-WEEK ‘BEST OF BRITAIN’ BUS TOUR WITH TRAFALGAR TOURS--
We stayed the first two nights in London at a neat old hotel (undergoing some renovation) called Kensington Palace Hotel since it is situated right across the street from Kensington Park, which surrounds a smallish but elegant palace where Princess Di lived and which some royal family members still occupy. We walked down embassy row just adjacent to Kensington Park where there are a number of beautiful mansions. We made our walking tour of the park starting at about 6:00 AM because it was raining the night before but in the morning the sun was out in full force. Kensington Park also houses the Prince Albert memorial, which Queen Victoria had built in memory of her husband. It stands just across from Royal Albert Hall. The location of our hotel in central London made it much easier to see many of the popular tourist attractions. Our tour bus took us around London that morning and we were able to see Big Ben, Parliament, Westminster Abbey, St. James’ Palace, and several other sights including Buckingham Palace (where we also watched the ‘changing of the guard,’ a rather silly ceremony staged for the tourists regularly involving a couple rows of bagpipers, and about four or five rows of very young soldiers in those red coats with the bearskin hats). We had the rest of the day to ourselves so we took the underground to the British Museum and spent the afternoon there—what a fabulous place. We had a nice walk again that evening with a dinner out a Chinese restaurant.
In the morning the bus tour took off in earnest. The bus carried about 48 people, many of whom became acquaintances over the course of the trip. Several were retirees from Florida and a few came from other parts of the US. Of the entire group only about half were American. The others were from places like Toronto, Perth and Sidney, Australia, Capetown and Johannesburg, South Africa and there was even one family of four (the parents were both doctors, with a 12-year-old boy and a14-year-old girl, the only young people on the tour besides Daniel) who live in Singapore. It was standard procedure for the seating arrangements to be rotated among the travelers, but we, as the only threesome, were permitted to stay the whole trip in the farthest back seat where there was a very big window high off the road, and a large rear window just behind us, so we had a great view.
We made our way out of London to the west where we glimpsed Winsor Castle from the distance and stopped at Hampton Court, another very old palace belonging to the royal family outside London. During the course of the day we visited Stonehenge, had lunch in Salisbury where there’s a beautiful cathedral, and enjoyed a lot of countryside scenery, including a stop at a quaint little pub in a tiny country village named Kenn (with a small medieval church that also had served as a fortress for the townspeople).
Towards late afternoon we stopped at a wonderful coastal town called Looe that used to be a pirate’s haven. We were able to take a walk up a long very narrow alley to the top of the hill where the view of the whole town on both sides of the harbor was spread out in spectacular fashion. We drove on to nearby Plymouth for a big dinner provided by the tour at our hotel, a modern place on the outskirts of the city. The following morning the bus took us to the ‘Barbicon’ area of Plymouth, where very old fortifications and ancient buildings were grouped together by the harbor over several blocks. At this spot the passengers of the Mayflower embarked for America in 1620.
We all needed to put our luggage out by our room doors throughout the trip by about 6:30 AM. Breakfast was usually at 7:00 AM and we often were on the road by 8:00 AM. This led to some sleepy mornings with naps on the bus for just about everyone some days. The hotels were all very good, some were excellent, all had restaurants where we had breakfast and, about half the time, dinners too.
The bus departed from Plymouth harbor in mid-morning and by noon we had traveled to Glastonbury where we had lunch at an ethnic takeout place. The highlight of Glastonbury is the ancient ruins of the abbey where the grave of King Arthur and Queen Guinevere was discovered centuries ago. There is a marker that talks about it, but does not mention what our tour guide told us: that the grave possibly is still here on these grounds somewhere, but in a secret location to keep it protected.
After lunch we drove on to the really ancient Roman city of Bath where the Roman baths still exist (with an extensive museum). The city has many centuries-old structures and thousands of tourists at a time. There’s a beautiful river and a great medieval cathedral, as many English cities have. The bridge over the river is one of the only ones with a row of shops built on the bridge itself (from the middle ages) still in existence. Then we drove on through pastoral countryside to Bristol, where we stayed for the night in the old part of town in one of the nicest elegant old hotels of the tour. We three had a great walk through the city with supper at a neat Indian restaurant in the basement of an apartment building downtown, finishing the walk well after dark.
The next day took us into Wales briefly to visit the famous Tintern Abbey ruins and a drive through the Wey River valley. After that we stopped for lunch at the Wedgewood factory, where we were able to take a tour through where some of the world’s best china is manufactured—great decorative skills on many of the more elegant plates, and a whole area devoted to the Wedgewood statuary. Then we continued on to the small city of Chester where the old section is surrounded by a city wall that can be circled on foot in less than an hour. One of the neatest cathedrals we saw in England is in Chester, parts of which were built in the 1100’s. That night we made it to our next night’s lodging: a 1700’s manor house out in the country (with new buildings to house the additional hotel rooms) which had room after room of fancy décor and art works on the walls. Dunkenhalgh manor stands by a field of grazing cows and overlooks a beautiful river valley.
The Lake District is some of the most scenic territory we traversed, and after a visit to the charming little town, Grasmere, where William Wordsworrh lived, worked (writing poetry) and is buried, we stopped for lunch at another touristy town built right by a great example of the lakes of the district. By then the weather had turned rainy and so we went inside a few of the many of the shops along the road near the waterfront—I ended up buying a new fall jacket I really like. This left us with too little time to get our lunch at a sit-down restaurant, so we opted for a ‘fast-food’ café where they took forever to make our fried fish sandwich and ‘curry chips.’ This led to the one mildly disastrous happening of the trip. We rushed back to the bus with about five minutes to spare (the time limitation always thrust on us was the only real drawback to the bus tour—that and the fact that everyone got kind of sick by the end of the trip) with our packages of carryout food still uneaten. The bus driver wouldn’t let us bring that stuff on the bus, so we huddled from the wind and rain, which was coming pretty hard by then, between two busses near the wall in back and bolted down our food. This led to a spill of the ‘curry’ part of the chips (french fries)--actually a favored liquid poured on regular fries--down the front of my clothes. Daniel and I were hurriedly trying to close my umbrella while I held the half-eaten take-out boxes and of course the fries box tipped and spread the thick yellow sauce on my shirt and pants. The boxes were tossed away at last but there was only one napkin available to wipe off the spill--so my raincoat was all that disguised the big yellow blotch down my front.
After lunch we drove through territory increasingly more hilly through the rain, but by the time we approached Glasgow, Scotland after a couple of hours, things had cleared up pretty nicely. The tour brought us to a fabulous art museum a little way out in the country called the Burrell Collection, brought together over many years by a millionaire art collector. It was a very mixed collection including several paintings by Degas, a large collection of stained glass windows from 12th and 13th century churches, odd ceramic sculptures from the middle east, huge tapestries, old furniture, tiny carvings—etc. etc. all great stuff perfectly displayed in a very large building built for this purpose. After about an hour and a half (too short a time again), we made our way through the gothic sights of downtown Glasgow and on to our 1960’s hotel in a working class district of this very big city. I was very happy to be able to change clothes at last, before a fine supper there at the hotel. We took a short walk after supper to see the neighborhood and it was interesting to soak up the flavor of a completely different type of city—very different in feel than US cities, but with some similarities to economically depressed districts everywhere.
In the morning it was raining again but we dutifully loaded into the bus after breakfast and headed northwest to Loch Lohman, a beautiful miles-long lake with a lot of rolling tree-covered hills around it. It was disappointing to have such a pretty spot covered with gray clouds and rain but we managed a short walk while some of the tour members took a little (and expensive) boat excursion with the tour guide. Then we drove on through terrain that more and more started to look like the Scottish Highlands I’d seen pictures of, and gradually the rain faded away and the hills became more colorful and dramatic looking. Naturally I felt cheered up by the fact that my photos would start to turn out better now with a little more light and less heavy clouds around.
We stopped for lunch at a smallish place designed as a tourist stop with plenty of ‘Scottish’ things to consider buying, especially clothing items with all types of plaid—usually made of wool. The countryside outside the bus window had become completely populated with sheep—the land is not good for growing things so grazing of sheep is really common everywhere. The English hedgerows that separated the fields in Cornwall (by Plymouth) and the Lake District were now replaced by long tightly-built winding stone walls that snaked everywhere across the hills. The highlands can be quite rugged but the hills and ‘mountains’ are not very tall (3000 feet max), but many of them were still snow-capped. This is quite far north so we were not all that far removed from late winter here around the first of June.
We made our peaceful way to our next hotel, where we spent two nights: Nethybridge, a small Scottish village set in beautiful countryside. After a great supper, we took a really pleasant evening walk down a few roads and back on some trails through the woods. More sheep and horses to watch from close quarters, with beautiful wildflowers all around.
In the morning we didn’t need to pack up at all—everything could be left in our rooms since we were coming back to the same place that night. We drove to a famous historical battlefield nearby (Cullonden) which is very close to Cawdor Castle, Macbeth’s old place, which sadly we didn’t get to see. Then we headed into the bustling city of Inverness, full of very old stone buildings and a variety of new structures. Soon we were on the road through the countryside again to visit the Loch Ness, complete with gift shops that heavily feature stuffed toys of various imaginary designs and sizes of ‘Nessy’ the Loch Ness monster. It is a really beautiful sea loch though, many miles long, and we were able to see the ruins of the ancient Urquart Castle build right on the shore. At one scenic stop, a fully decked-out old Scottish bagpiper was there to entertain us and sell us postcards (he played some familiar tunes). Then we headed on to the Isle of Skye (several square miles in size) on Scotland’s west coast, a wonderfully scenic place. We drove across Europe’s most expensive toll bridge (41 pounds for our tour bus, each way). This new toll bridge apparently has had a strong negative effect on the economy of the island and the population has begun to dwindle.
We spent a couple of hours having lunch and driving around the seashore and rolling hills of the island. The highlight of this drive was a twenty minute side trip around a coastal hill on a very narrow back road— just barely wide enough for the bus itself. More than once the roadside bushes brushed both sides of our bus at the same time. Many times the view out the window was spectacular, especially with the deep dropoffs to the sea on the right side. It was just like an amusement park thrill ride. Of course the two vehicles we met on that stretch of backroad had to pull off entirely (at slightly wider spots) to let the bus pass. Towards late afternoon we headed back to the hotel about 50 miles away to another fine dinner. We took another quiet exploring walk in a different direction after supper and got to see more fields and running water and a little of the more modern part of the town.
The next day we drove to nearby Balmoral Castle, where the queen and her family stay when they want to get away from London. We visited the tiny Crathie Church where the royal family attends when they are here—also the site of a few royal weddings over the years. Balmoral is set on a huge chunk of land with beautiful gardens and the biggest front lawn I’ve ever seen. The castle has about 100 rooms but we were only able to visit the main floor ballroom which is set up with displays like a museum. The stables and carriage houses also have old coaches and old photos of the various past royals visiting the palace.
Then we took off for the east coast of Scotland and had lunch at St. Andrew’s where the famous ancient golf course lies (of British Open fame). This medium-size town has some very well preserved ruins of another abbey built in the 1400’s, with one Norman arch that still stands from maybe the year 850. We ate at a nice Italian restaurant and got to see two or three churches and one fine cathedral from the outside. Again the timing was tight and I had to spend a few minutes jogging back to the bus to avoid being late.
Soon we were on the road to another large city, Edinburgh, where we stayed that night and the next. In the evening, the three of us took the city bus downtown, saw some sights along Princes street, and admired the famous Edinburgh Castle built in the 1100-1400’s situated on a high rocky hill looming above the whole downtown. We soaked in a little of the night scene there which surprisingly (since this was a Saturday night) featured scores of teenagers dressed up in party clothes kicking around the street and laughing. The girls especially were really ‘dolled up.’ They’d roam from café to café and hang out. There must have been some places around that had dancing and movies and such. We found a great Indian restaurant to have supper. We caught the bus back the four miles back to the hotel (a modern one) near the city’s main sea waterway, the Firth of Forth.
In the morning after breakfast, we all climbed aboard the bus for a morning tour of the city led by a new one-day tour guide that specialized in Edinburgh—his brogue was charming but so thick not everything could be understood. We visited a few of the places we’d seen the previous night, but the main time was spent—in the rain again—visiting Edinburgh Castle itself, a fascinating place full of very old buildings and museum displays. One building had been converted in this century to a memorial to the British soldiers who had died in World War One. Beautiful specially-made stained glass covered every window. The view over the city from the ramparts of the castle was really amazing.
Thankfully the rain stopped by late morning and soon afterward we were released to spend time on our own wherever we wanted to go, with the bus to return to a specific spot about four hours later to get those who wanted to head back to the hotel then. Some people opted to take the city bus back later. We spent quite a bit of time in the stores of downtown looking for clothes and souvenirs. I (without Patty and Daniel) was able to visit a neat old tower on Princes street called the Walter Scott memorial, which involved walking up a very tight low-ceiling spiral staircase to level after level of outdoor walkways around the tower. There were nearly 300 steps in all and by the time the highest level was reached the steps themselves were so small that feet could barely fit on them, and passing another person on the stairs involved careful squeezing and contorting to get past. And the headroom was short too—everyone had to duck down a little. The view at the last level, over 250 feet up in the air, was quite dizzying. After regrouping with Patty and Daniel we walked over to the ‘Royal Mile,’ a several block narrow street straight out of the middle ages, where all the buildings are original, including some fabulous churches and shops. The street begins with Edinburgh Castle and ends with another old royal place, where the kings and queens of Scotland sometimes lived, called Holyrood Palace, which I saw from the outside only. The bus timing was again a real pressure on what we were able to take in. We caught the tour bus back to the hotel in late afternoon and walked to a MacDonalds for a casual supper that night. Our feet were sore and we were happy just to retreat to the hotel room.
By this time it must be clear that the bus tour route was taking us in a giant circle around England and Scotland. After Edinburgh we headed south across the English border again through the Northeastern part of England (Northumberland) to Newcastle where we saw a pathetic portion of the famous ‘Hadrian’s Wall’ from the Roman times; there were much better examples of it elsewhere out in the country that we didn’t get to see. We made it to the major stop of the day by early afternoon: the city of York, where we saw some of the best examples of medieval architecture of the trip. The old part of the city has a Roman wall around it with a few gates still intact. Several very narrow streets (for walking only) have most of the original half-timbered buildings converted to shops and stores that cater to the tourists. The Viking Museum is a neat place that has an underground series of very detailed tableaus of Viking life circa 800 complete with accurately-costumed realistic life-size figures surrounded by the effects of their various trades and living conditions. The viewing was done from an automatic electric go-cart on a track that weaved slowly through the scenes, complete with sounds (hidden speakers) and smells (some yucky) of a Viking village. There were actual remains of a Viking settlement in the museum as well.
The most amazing cathedral of the whole tour is in York. The ‘Minister’ which covers a whole block has a tower that goes up about 500 feet. Every space along every wall has a series of original artifacts, sculptures and art works from the middle ages. The huge array of stained glass windows was really amazing, much of it extending so far into the air above us that only God can see it properly (likely that’s who they built them for). We spent about four hours looking around the old city, which was not nearly enough time—we should revisit here again someday. In late afternoon we gathered at the bus and went out to dinner as a group (again part of the prearranged tour) at an old hotel that features the Churchill family heavily in the art work on the walls. Our hotel that night was in the newer part of town right next to a horse race track. During our evening walk we were able to visit with some pretty horses who lived loose on the track grounds.
The following day brought us to Stratford upon Avon, a beautiful town with scores more medieval buildings still in fine condition, including (just outside town) the Anne Hathaway (Shakespeare’s wife) cottage with its thatched roof and big garden, and Shakespeare’s birthplace, a very well-preserved two-story house which is now a museum open to visitors. The church that has Shakespeare’s grave inside it, with graves of other family members, sits nicely along the river at the edge of the old town. By evening we had traveled on to nearby Conventry for the night. Our hotel was on the same block as the bombed-out Conventry Cathedral, still standing as a memorial right next to the brand new cathedral. The city is almost entirely rebuilt because it was largely destroyed by German bombing in WWII. The city is rather depressing and run down with an industrial feel to it.
The next day we drove past the Churchill family mansion in the country (Blenheim Palace) and visited Winston’s gravesite in a little churchyard. The majority of the day was spent wandering around the elegant stone buildings of Oxford, with its many-block series of component colleges. We went to the top of an 1100s tower (Carfax) with a great view of the whole city and the surrounding hills. We saw a beautiful round building designed in the 1600s by Christopher Wren. We went through a few of the buildings at Trinity college where our tour guide, Melvin Robinson, had studied history (which he sure knew a lot about—he constantly came up with fascinating facts about every place we visited). By late afternoon we were on the road again to the same hotel in London where we had first stayed so many days before.
We took the underground again to part of central London that we had missed on the first visit. We stopped by the Tower bridge (but missed the closing time for climbing up in it), walked by the Tower of London and took in several blocks of territory near the river and St. Paul’s Cathedral. We crossed over to the other side of the Thames, ate supper at a nice Thai restaurant and made it to the ‘London Eye’ for a ride up in the air at around sundown. The Eye is a huge Ferris wheel with big transparent gondola-like people pods (up to 15 people can look out, stand or sit, walk around and look out from any direction) that take the sight-seers up to maybe 400 feet in the air where the view is really spectacular. It takes about a half hour to make a complete circuit. It was a fitting highpoint to end the trip with. We walked around Parliament, Westminster Abbey (this time lit up, with no people around) and Big Ben on the way to our underground station for the trip back to the hotel. In the morning we caught the shuttle to Gatwick and met our place back to the US.
It was a rewarding and remarkable 15 days (including flying days), each pretty well packed with things to see and do. The total mileage covered was 2380.The tour did a good job of planning everything out well—of course more time was needed for some places than others, but generally it was really well paced. There are several places I hope to revisit sometime when I can have more control over how long I can stay. The hotels and food provided by the tour company were very good and I would recommend this way of doing things highly. It was truly remarkable how the bus driver was able to navigate efficiently the wide variety of highways and small roads, following the indecipherable road signs which would have kept me on pins and needles completely stressed out the whole time if I had been driving. Driving through scores of bewildering traffic circles without one mistake, never getting lost once, was a real feat. And sitting up in the air high off the highway gave us a great view all the time—without any of the cares of the actual driving of the vehicle. There were only four days when it rained part of the time out of the whole trip (at first in London, in the Lake District, in Glasgow-Loch Lohman-Scottish Highlands, and in Edinburgh). Bright sun was definitely much more common, with mild temperatures, so we felt lucky all around. It was a memorable trip and we hope to travel to other interesting places (possibly via bus tour again) in the future.