After the airplane tickets were booked, we bought some tour books, maps, and all around tourist support guides. Laurel called AAA and reserved a car - and automatic transmission - to be picked up at Gatwick airport. The trip was beginning to take shape. Land in London and do a circle tour of Britain, first starting in southern England, work our way around to Bath, north through Wales, into Scotland and finally come south along the eastern coast back to a long weekend in London. Finally, we stumbled upon a reference to a medieval banquet and a castle you could stay in in northern Wales. We called, but couldn't book the evening we hoped for but could arrange a reservations the last Friday of the trip. So, if we just reverse the circle route, it wouldn't be too bad.
That's it. That was the extent of our plans. The rest was to bring lots of money. Oh, did I mention the outbreak of foot and mouth disease in the countryside just then. Oh and don't forget that pesky mad cow disease is still lingering in English beef.
Getting the car wasn't much of a problem. Figuring out which door to get in and discover what all them pesky buttons, knobs and switches did was a bit tricky. Now if we only knew where to go first. We decided on York as our first destination. Now how to get there ....
First, lets say Cambridge was nice. An old town. 30 colleges make up the university. Our first stop was at a tourist information center. They gave us ideas of what to see and even suggested getting a good road atlas. We spent a few hours seeing several campuses and wandering through the shops. We even saw a wargaming shop - cool, eh?.
Cambridge was worth a moments stop, but soon we were on our way to York - or so we thought. It took 2 and 1/2 hours to leave. We must have made every wrong turn, and every road leads to Cambridge. By now, the lack of sleep was definitely becoming evident. The kids were quiet. Like a lamb just before the slaughter. We finally escaped the gravitational pull of the black hole named Cambridge and got to Stamford (not to be confused with Stanford or Stratford). It was dark and we were a bit worried the lack of lodging reservations was about to haunt us. The first place was full but they pointed us up the road. We eventually found a family room at the Garden House Hotel just down the street. Had supper and collapsed into a deep slumber.
Oh! A short note on tourist information centers. These are great. Most towns (even small ones) have a place to ask questions, even reserve places to stay. They may have special deals on events and lodging. But watch the time. By the time we got to Stamford, the IC was closed.
We visited York minster - a lovely cathedral. It was built by the Normans. One unique point is that it has a wooden ceiling. They did not believe the walls were strong enough to hold a stone ceiling, so they build it of wood and painted it to look like stone. Quite unique. It has also burned 3 times. The most recently in the mid-1980s. Our hats are off to John, the elderly gentleman that guided us through the minster and described many of its quaint features. Did you know a noble boy is buried in York minster, but they seemed to have misplaced his body. But his marker is there for all to see.
That evening, we accompanied a walk on a Ghost Trail - taking in the sites of the darker side of York. We discovered the place where they did public hangings, barricaded in the folk with the plague, and took in the lesser known bits of history of York. Our guide was excellent. He spun the stories of ghosts in with a light dose of York history. At the conclusion of our tour, our guide invited us to a wonderful pub - the Golden Fleece. Besides Guinness, Ale, and Cider, they offered a hot chocolate to cherish for many-a-day. As I watched, chocolate was added to the bottom of a glass, steamed milk was stirred in. A bit of whipped cream, adding 2 chocolate chip cookies, topped with a drizzle of honey and dash of powdered cocoa. As I said - a wonderful conclusion to a pleasant day in jolly ol' England.
The next day we started the day at Clifford's
Tower. Adjacent to the tower, was the York museum. One of the
exhibits was sponsored by Nestle and exhibited the history of
turns out that York has a strong chocolate tradition. There were
many chocolate factories in York. Most are now integrated into the
large multinational corporations, such as Cadbury. One York factory
was Terry's Chocolate. Terry's is credited for originally producing
a chocolate apple. Then a chocolate orange. Recently Cadbury
changed the name of their chocolate orange back to the original manufacturer's
name - Terry's. Besides Nestle's and Cadbury, other companys were
represented including Hershey and Toberone.
The only bad thing was there were no free samples, but good chocolate could
be gotten everywhere.
We parked the car and started following the crowd. Then an absolutely wonderful British experience occurred. As we looked bewildered standing on the streets of Newcastle, two gentlemen asked if they could help. They were wondering tourist information in search of lost souls like ourselves. We told them what we had in mind and they essentially took our hands and led us to the Castle Keep of Newcastle. On the walk, they shared with us wonderful stories about the town. For instance, Queen Victoria hated the castle (they didn't mention why), but she needed to travel through Newcastle on her way between Edinburgh and London. She would lower the carriage shade as she passed the castle so she would not need to gaze on the castle. Eventually, a bridge was built crossing the river so that her tavels were out of view of the castle. Some time after her death, a monument, with a statue of Queen Victoria, was erected facing the castle - in direct violation of her wishes.
Mark's hope of visiting the brewery were
dashed when we discovered you needed reservations - well in advance.
He had to drown his sorrows in a few pints at the local pub.
Along the mile are many shops, restaurants, and even the tourist information center. We spent the whole day at the castle and along the mile. One stop was at the museum for malt wiskey distillation. We did not make it into the palace, but we are told that you can easily spend another day there. There was some snow on the ground, but it was the icy steps up the narrow castle walls and along the parapets that has us grasping for a handrail to stabilize ourselves.
May I suggest the Dunedin B&B. It was very reasonably price. The hostess is from New York, but has been in Scotland long enough to adopt her new accent. The bus lines take you right down to the royal mile and the B&B is only a few blocks from several restaurants. And as long as I am suggesting stuff - the Old Bell pub has a restaurant, the New Bell, that was the high light of the meals (at least from the point of good food).
My only regret was not being able to spend more time in southern England. This region is known for its apple orchards - including apple cider and an apple brandy known as Devonshire Royal. It is only found in this region - so get it when you can.
Laurel had her heart set on visiting Stratford. Statford on Avon is the birthplace of William Shakespeare. Later that week, little to our knowledge at the time, we were to attend a London theatre where we would see every play written by Shakespeare. But that is a story for later. His birthplace appears to be a bit run down, but I suspect it is tough to keep the period piece while the rest of the town is growing around it. The kids discovered a delightful chocolate shop across the street - and found it kept their attention more so than some old building.
As the day ended, we spotted a town of
some size on the way to Ruthin that would make a good evening stay.
As it turned out, Shrewsbury is another delightful town. In many
ways, we should have had more time to explore its many adventures that
it had to offer. We stayed at the Lion Hotel. I think
it was kind of pricey, but we had a family room, ate dinner there, and
the hotel had quite a bit of history and atmospere. The bar maid
pointed Mark to a pub down the street that had just received a cask of
Fuller's ESB. The Three Fishes is a traditional pub with brass
hand pulled taps on their casks. And that evening they had a wonderful
ale to complement their other fine selections. We did not stumble
across this pub until after dinner - otherwise I think this would have
been a fine epicurian delight.
Dinner was a medieval banquet. Our
greeted us and showed us
to our seats - at the head table adjacent to the evening's host & hostess.
They served a spiced mead (yummy) and a wine (not so yummy). The
meal included soup (very good) with bread, lamb, chicken, and a delightful
dessert (kind of like a mousse). In general, the meal was eaten with
your fingers and a dagger. Lots of messy fun. The entertainment
consisted of welsh singing, dancing, and music. The predominate
instruments were a harpsicord and a harp. There were 2 welsh parties
(about 10 each) and about 10 Americans. After dinner, we gathered
around and discussed
politics and compared adventures.
Laurel suggested we get on one of the bus tours of London. At the Marble gate, we bought a 24 hour pass on the Big Bus Tours. This allowed us to use their tour busses for 24 hours, plus take a tour on the Thames river on a tour boat. It kind of ended up being redundant with the underground pass. The underground pass was cheaper (£3.50 for an adult) compared to the tour bus (£15.00 for an adult - and they only accept cash on the weekends). Also the underground runs until midnight, and the tour busses kind of quit by 7:30. But the tour was interesting. They do a good job of pointing out the highlight of London, the theatre district, the American Embassy, car dealerships (if you are looking for a Rolls Royce or Jaguar), and even the most haunted house in London.
After the tour (we went from 5:00 until 7:00), we went looking for dinner. By now, British food was beginning to naw at the children's stomachs. The were searching out McDonalds, Pizza Hut, etc. Pizza Hut won, mostly because it was close to Marble Gate (where we had disembarked from the bus tour) and we were too cold to spend time looking for anything better. Did I mention the open air seating on the upper deck of the bus can be a bit cool in the winter? By the way, Pizza Hut in London was much more appealing than here in the States. But it still wasn't shepard's pie or beef wellington.
Sunday morning we were up and off to the Tower of London. We were greeted by the Beefeaters, who gave short tours and light hearted commentary of various aspects of the castle. They are worth spending the time.
Mark walked by the Univac office he worked at 16 years earlier. Not sure if it was still the same. It was very low key. Even back then. But the street had changed significantly. The offices were still above the grocery, but the Arab community has settled into the area. If you need a turkish cup of coffee, or a smoke, you don't need to go any further. Even banks from the Emirates and other Arab countries. Quite different from just a few short years earlier.
The second evening we went to Soho to catch a theatre show. We had plans of seeing the Lion King, but saw the Reduced Shakespeare Company. With moments to spare, we snuck into the 4 pm matinee show. This was the complete works of Shakespeare done by 3 actors done in 97 minutes. Needless to say, it was a comedy (though the tragedies were funnier).
The weather in the first half of March was around freezing in the north and in the mid-40s in the south. Coming from Minnesota, it was not beach weather but a pleasant improvement over mounds of snow and temperatures below zero. Daffodils were blooming, and we even saw one tree fully blossoming with pink flowers. Another week or so and Spring would be very beautiful.
I am torn about driving. The torture of the first few days left me a bit down on the experience. But the flexibility and the lower cost compared to rail (for a family of 4) made it probably a good choice in the end. We abandoned the car as we entered London and only the bravest of souls should think otherwise. No one (tourist guides, locals, etc.) advised driving in London. Most comparisons reminded us of a description right from Dante's Inferno. The underground is exceptional and will take you most anywhere you want to go. By the way, the cost of a cab from Gatwick to London is about the same as taking a family of 4 on the train. It is worth comparing prices.
As for guide books, Rick Steves'
books gave a lot of useful information and led you to the more interesting
places. We did not do a lot of pre-planning. As such, the tourist
information centers in each town were extremely helpful in identifying
highlight for our stay and selecting lodging. Even for the well prepared,
the tourist information centers would help you get discounts and just plan
your day. They are usually located near "city center" or the rail
The Glewwe Family in Prior Lake
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