Our Great Britain adventure began in London, a huge and exciting city. There was no need of a car for the first few days. We simply walked or took public transportation. One of the first things we did was to take a Big Bus Company tour, which is a narrated trip through the city’s major sights, and, with a 24hour ticket, visitors are allowed to get off, then pick up another bus to continue the tour (extremely convenient especially for more distant attractions). The tour also gives a good orientation to the city and its various enclaves.
Our hotel (one of the Thistles, a British chain) was located right next to the Tower Bridge (Photo #2), one of London’s major attractions and a symbol of the city. The Tower Bridge Experience provides visitors with lots of information about the history, operation, and construction of the bridge. We expected great views of the Thames and London’s riverfront from the top level but were disappointed that there were only a few tiny windows available.
Right beside the bridge is one of London’s most popular attractions, The Tower of London (Photo #1). Over time, it has been a residence of British monarchs, a weapons storage facility, a treasury (it still holds the crown jewels), and, most famously, a prison. Each tour is led by a "beefeater" (yeoman warden) who is very knowledgeable about the storied history of the place. We learned about the beheadings, the Bloody Tower, and the legend of the Ravens.
Upriver from the tower is the financial district and further, the government district. This was our next stop. We were positively enchanted with Parliament and Big Ben (actually the name of the bell, not the tower) (Photo #3) — their architecture is beautiful and they are exquisitely maintained. Nearby is Westminster Abbey (Photo #4), the famous church where British monarchs are crowned, has become more like a museum than a church, since it contains the tombs of so many famous Brits. There are also special memorials to famous non-royals. My favorite was the Poet’s Corner.
One of the city’s most popular gathering places is Trafalgar Square (Photo #5), not far from the Abbey. The large square is dominated by a statue of Lord Trafalgar and a large fountain where hundreds congregate. Around the square are some notable attractions. The British Museum, storehouse of treasures from around the globe, is at one end. On another side of the square is St Martin-in-the-Fields Church, where we had a bite to eat in its "Cafe in the Crypt", an interesting venue.
The obligatory "Changing of the Guard" at Buckingham Palace (Photo #6) was next on our agenda, but it was so crowded that it was difficult to see much (get there early if want a good view). Later we witnessed the Changing of the Horse Guard which was just as interesting without as many people.
Other sights in the city which should be visited include St Paul’s Cathedral (Photo #7), where Prince Charles and Diana’s wedding took place, Picadilly Circus, the London equivalent to Times Square in New York, and Harrod’s Department Store (Photo #8), which is certainly one of the most famous places of its kind in the world, and a truly unique experience. A newer attraction is British Airways’ London Eye, a huge ferris wheel on the banks of the Thames which provides incredible views of the city.
We splurged for dinner at the River Cafe, west of the city center. The chefs, at the time, had a show on the cooking channel. It was worth the additional expense.
The next day we picked up our rental car. I was somewhat nervous about driving on the left side of the road, but it was fairly easy to get used to (every time I got in to drive, I would remind myself, drive left, look right). We drove first to Canterbury to see the famous cathedral (Photo #9), but were foiled since there was a graduation that day and the church was closed to visitors. Next we traveled to Dover because I wanted to see the White Cliffs. We did see a portion of them, but it was in an area where we could not park, so I was unable to take pictures.
Our next stop was Leeds Castle (Photo #10), a wonderfully romantic and picturesque castle with pleasant well-kept grounds and an exquisite presentation inside. Each room was meticulously decorated with extravagant arrangements of fresh flowers. The castle even has a moat around it.
We then headed for Brighton, on the south coast, to see the Royal Pavilion (Photo #10), an elaborate palace with Eastern architecture and Chinese furnishings. We arrived just prior to closing, so our visit was fairly short. Our return to London took forever because of a huge traffic jam, but we made it.
The next morning we left London to head west toward Bath. Our first stop was Oxford (Photo #11), "the city of dreamy spires" where we felt spiritual and awed because we were walking in the footsteps of some of the greatest minds in the history of civilization. We wandered the beautiful campuses of the various colleges.
The next stop was Warwick Castle (Photo #12), the epitome of a classic castle — very large, formidable, high on a cliff, a true fortress. This castle was also elegantly displayed with wax figures, dressed in turn-of-the-century costumes, participating in realistic scenes. There was great attention to detail, with such touches as running water in the bath, a cigarette lighter lighting, etc. Again, the grounds were meticulous — the Brits sure take good care of their historic properties.
Next we went to Stratford-on-Avon, the birthplace of William Shakespeare. Parking was impossible so we just did a drive by of Shakespeare’s Home and then the Anne Hathaway Cottage (his wife’s childhood home) (Photo #13). We then continued on an interesting and picturesque drive through the Cotswolds, a bevy of villages with strange-sounding names, in the hills northwest of London. We drove through towns like Stow-on-the-Wold, Chipping Campden, Upper and Lower Slaughter and Cirencester, stopping occasionally for pictures or a pint. At last we arrived in Bath.
We began the next day by driving to Stonehenge (Photo #14), certainly a highlight for me. These stone monuments are almost 5,000 years old, left by people we know little about, and were brought here from a distance of 50 or 60 miles and no one knows how. There is obviously much mystery associated with this place. Have the delicious rock cakes at the concession stand.
From Stonehenge, we traveled to Stourhead Gardens (Lee loves gardens) and thoroughly enjoyed a quiet two-mile stroll around the lake. The entire experience was extremely tranquil and spiritual.
In the afternoon, we returned to Bath to see the sights in this beautiful town with Georgian architecture and flowers cascading from window boxes. The most important sights are the Roman Baths (Photo #16)(take the audiotour), the Bath Abbey (Photo #15), another pretty church, and the Royal Crescent, a row of upper class Georgian apartments overlooking a park. We had a lovely "tea" at the Pump Room, serenaded by a chamber ochestra.
Then it was north to Scotland. We got an early start and stopped first at Stoke-on-Trent, famous for its fine china. We took the tour at Wedgewood, and picked up some Christmas dishes at Spode. We continued north to the Lake District, one of the most popular vacation spots for the British. We passed through the lovely towns of Windermere and Grasmere, enjoyed the scenic vistas, then entered Scotland. The Scottish landscape is similar to England’s but more wild and less cultivated.
As we neared Edinburgh, we located our hotel, the Dalhousie Castle (Photo #17). What an incredible experience, staying in real castle! It was worth every penny of our splurge!
We ate breakfast the next morning in the dungeon at the castle (what a setting), then took off on our Scottish ramble, a scenic drive through the highlands. We traveled through the Trossachs and on to Glen Coe (Photo #21), a beautiful area in the highlands where rocky crags top lush, green meadows with sheep and Highland cattle grazing. Travel was very slow because of traffic and windy, narrow roads. We next stopped at the legendary Loch Ness, home of the famous and mysterious monster (although we looked constantly, we never even caught a glimpse). We took pictures at the ruins of Urquhart Castle (Photo #22), on a promontory jutting into the lake. A bagpiper serenaded visitors (nice touch!).
At Inverness we turned and headed back toward Edinburgh, managing to stop for a few moments at Blair Castle. We also stopped briefly in Edinburgh, although it was somewhat late.
The next day was totally committed to Edinburgh, the capital of Scotland. We started at Edinburgh Castle, an incredibly ominous fortification at one end of the old town. We toured the grounds and learned about its history. Then we began our stroll down the Royal Mile, the street, lined with shops and crowded with people, connecting the castle with Holyrood Palace (Photo #19), residence of the Queen when she is visiting. Along the way, we stopped at St Giles Cathedral (Photo #20), with its distinctive tower and very old, dark interior.
In Holyrood, much of the tour centers around the life and times of Mary, Queen of Scots, who, as the rival of Queen Elizabeth I, was eventually beheaded at the Tower of London. We climbed Calton Hill (Photo #18)which provides a great view of the city, even as far as the Firth of Forth.
Next we walked to Princes Street, the main shopping street of the city, located in what is called New Town. Here we admired the Sir Walter Scott Memorial, strolled Princes Garden, did our shopping and then returned to Dalhousie.
The next morning we headed back into England, stopping first at Hadrian’s Wall (Photo #23), a 75 mile fortification built by the Romans in around 100 AD. We strolled through Housestead Fort, one of the better-preserved Roman outposts, then continued southward to York (Photo #24). We strolled the ancient cobblestone streets of this Medieval, walled city, and visited the famous York Minster, one of England’s largest and most beautiful Gothic churches.
We left for London early the next morning and only made one stop, at the lovely town of Cambridge (Photo #25), where we again reveled in recalling the impressive list of former students. The King’s College Chapel was gorgeous, and we enjoyed watching people "punting" on the Cam.
We had one last day in London which we spent walking some of the neighborhoods of the city, then flew out the next day for home.
1. England is a great destination for Americans because the language barrier that you are normally confronting is almost non-existent.
2. Don’t be too concerned about driving on the left, it was not as difficult to get used to as I feared. A family member suggestion to be sure to get an automatic was probably good advice. It might have been much harder if I had to worry about shifting also.
3. Again, getting into and out of cities is inevitably a real challenge. Invest in good maps!