The Land of Shakespeare, our forefathers, and the former empire upon which the sun never set was the first stop of a 19 day tour of the United Kingdom and the Republic of Ireland. April may be early for our annual trek in search of cooler weather, but the stars aligned to fly across the pond (as well as the American continent, since we can get technical here) and visit the land from whence Denny’s (my husband) paternal forebears emigrated in 1812.
Temperatures in the mid-forties and occasional showers were a shock to the mind and body (it was 90 degrees when we left Phoenix) as we arrived in London Central. Rain and sun darted back and forth like Gamble quail in a tizzy. We managed to keep our feet on the ground in the wind – was this near where Mary Poppins had landed? Tucked safely in the hotel, we met up with our tour group, as well as Jan and Marian, Denny’s brother and our sister-in-law, respectively. Forty-three (43) people all told! It had filled up considerable since we had booked the tour back in December. Not to worry, the coach was in new condition, fully outfitted, so out we ventured for our first city drive tour.
Our group promised to be fun as everyone took their seat assignments and got acquainted with Ian, our tour guide. Twelve Australians, Two Canadians and the rest from continental USA. The decision to take a tour bus was validated for us just on this first tour – what a maddening traffic situation! Our driver John expertly threaded his way through town as we gawked at the West End, and learned the history of the urban city area known as the City of Westminster, versus the actual City of London.
Our first foot-on-the-ground experience was a visit to St Pauls’s – the second largest cathedral in the world, designed and built by Christopher Wren. It houses the remains of Horatio Nelson and the Duke of Wellington, among others. We dutifully shuffled behind our tour guide, green boxes and ear buds in place, as she pointed out the highlights of this amazing piece of architecture.
I am sure I will never remember the myriad details imparted by our local guide. London has certainly been through more than its share of transformations. A bustling metropolis, many of its historical buildings were a result of a renewal after the Great Fire of 1666. We passed by Piccadilly Circus, Big Ben, Trafalgar Square, the Parliament buildings – as well as the relatively new Millennium Bridge and the London Eye, which now dominates the London skyline.
Our first full day dawned brightly enough – today we would be on free time, with all-day access to Hop on – Hop off bus service and a pass for the Tower of London. Crown Jewels!! Ravens! Map in hand, the four of us navigated the bus route system which had four routes with appointed destinations to choose from. It being the weekend, we judiciously headed for the Tower of London, hoping to take advantage of an early arrival. The Tower experience is a well thought-out route, and whoever conceived of the idea of a conveyor walk past the Crown Jewels is a genius – everyone was able to see the jewels to best advantage, with no hogging space or holding other visitors up. The walk along the wall tops was a nice vantage of the city – and Ravens dutifully posed for pictures, taking breaks as they saw fit. What they are thinking about all the humans milling about, only they know.
Most of London and its visitors were out on the streets, and while it was crowded, it was still navigable without getting too frustrating. Next, the Victoria and Albert Museum was Denny and my destination. From the Tower, we boarded a river cruise of the Thames and enjoyed views of the New Old Globe Theatre, the London skyline (including Big Ben), and many bridges. We walked through St. James Park, and made our way to Hyde Park as well – both destinations filled with the best people-watching you could experience.
Upon our arrival at Victoria and Albert we were afraid that we had bit off more than we could chew – but we managed to cover most of what the museum had to offer. There were many fiber-type exhibits which made me happy – tapestries, historical and modern fashion displays, fabrics from different centuries. I was especially amused by this wooden trio guarding a 16th century tapestry in one of the lower halls.
Red telephone booths dot the city. And on any given day you will be able to observe people taking this same picture, honoring Dr. Who, the one person on earth that has repurposed an outdated technology that will now last forever as an iconic method of time travel.
It’s not hard to lose track of feeding times when navigating through an unfamiliar town. When we finally met back up with Jan and Marian, we trolled the area nearby the hotel and were well rewarded with authentic Cornwall pasties at the Waterloo train station. To say that this station is huge is an understatement, and it is teeming with commuters. Thank you to the West Cornwall Pasty Company for catering to this crowd -the pasty I ate there was hands down definitely the best pasty I ever ate, and I have had a few!
On day four we drove through the Cotswolds. They are so quaint and tidy, thatched roofs and all. Cots are sheep enclosures, wolds are sloping hills, and that’s exactly how it looks as you pass through the town.
Interesting observations abound. For one thing, in the urban centers and along the city centers off the A40 you can’t get away from Starbucks, McDonalds and a – surprise! – Papa Johns pizza – we even saw a Krispy Creme Donut Shop at the Oxford turnoff. America has made its mark across the pond. On the other hand, there are also many windmill farms and solar farms as well as miles and miles of Canola fields. Also know as rapeseed, these fields are an explosion of yellow and are actually a cheerful addition to the roadside view.
Stratford on Avon, means Stratford on the River, avon meaning river. Here we joined the ranks of the tourists and funneled through the Shakespeare Birthplace Center, complete with wandering bards and people dressed in period costume. More facts about life in Shakespeare’s time than I can’t ever hope to remember. We happened on a car show in town, and were pleasantly surprised to find that Holy Trinity Church, where both Shakespeare and his wife are buried, was a fifteen minute walk from the town center. One gets the feeling that things may not have changed very much in the past few hundred years – shops for services and food line the area, a theatre in a park borders the river. It is all very quaint and familiar, and though bustling with activity, the pace was enjoyable and the atmosphere almost calming. Holy Trinity Church is a modest size, but very beautiful in its architecture. To think that the bard would have been baptized here, spent time in the town, enjoying his family and friends and ultimately find his final resting place.
Fortunately we still had time to grab a quick tea and scones at HR Coffee Shop before having to re-board the bus. And to think I had been in England for three days and hadn’t had a scone yet! These were worth the wait. Fresh and hot, with currants and smeared with Wilkins and Sons marmalade, clotted cream and honey on the side – life doesn’t get too much better than this. Enjoyed supporting the local gals.
On the road – avoidable when traveling from one town to another, after all, we had a lot of ground to cover! – we passed through Sheffield in South Yorkshire county, where stainless steel was developed. And also the home of MINI (my favorite car), Oxford – places near and dear.
As we drove past more windmill power and rapeseed fields, our tour guide plied us with local sweets, such as Allsorts Licorice and Pontefract Cakes, a traditional form of Yorkshire soft licorice. Yum.
Which brings us to – York! York is a medieval town with its original walls still intact. You pass into the city through what is called a Barbican entrance. “Gates” are streets, “Bars” are gates, and Guy Fawkes is memorialized, having been one of the town’s historical figures.The focal point of the city, however, is the cathedral. This particular “cathedral” however, is known as a Minster, a minster being a center for learning. Even with the city expansion and modern city street additions, the medieval section with cobblestones and narrow avenues is a fun area to explore with many little shops that showcase local wares. York a really fun town and one day I would love to go back and visit it again.
Our tour guide was able to surprise us with a drive on a wall – Hadrian’s wall, as a matter of fact! Built by Hadrian between 122 and 128 AD, it served as both the northern border of Britannia and taxation areas. It measured three meters wide, and many sections are still intact. Most of the wall was repurposed over the centuries to build homes and structures in the area, which are still in use today. There is a maintained trail used by the locals and invaded by tourists such as us. Our food stop was conveniently nearby – a local pub that goes by the name of Newcastle Three Tuns (a tun being a barrel). Although they did not have Newcastle beer on tap, they had the most amazing home made from scratch carrot and parsnip soup. Cheers!