Family Vacation 2001

Road Trip of Great Britain - England, Scotland, & Wales

The plan was to take 2 to 3 weeks in June and go to Britain.  Laurel & I were there in January 1985.  We spent most of the time in or around London.  Now we would return with our children.  Spend a week in London, then a couple of weeks touring the rest of the island.  We started planning back in 1997 when we sat down in Dirty Nelly's in the bottom of the hotel on the river walk in San Antonio, Texas.  Ahh! the memories of drinking in the pubs.  Diana went to London for the Millennium Parade with the high school band.  We just had to return ....

The Planning

Mid February, Laurel noticed airfare was pretty cheap from New York to London - $99 each way.  So I checked into airfare from Minneapolis/St. Paul.  At about 1/3 the fare if we waited until June, I bought the nonrefundable tickets and announced we would leave in 2 weeks.  The kids had Spring break.  I had oodles of vacation.  God was paving the way to a wonderful vacation.  I hoped Laurel could get time off of work.

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 to England

In keeping with airport suggestions, we parked our car in a remote lot and arrived at the MSP International airport 2 hours before our scheduled 6:45 departure.  We checked in our luggage (a seemingly never ending stream of luggage), exchanged some US currency for British currency and waited.  Patiently.  For the plane to develop mechanical problems.  Then for a new plane.  Eventually (at least 3 hours late and a bit smaller fuel capacity so we needed to jettison some excess passengers to Amsterdam), we were off to the London Gatwick International airport.  Something about sitting around for 5 hours took some of the excitement and anticipation out of the adventure.  Then sitting on an airplane (coach class) for another 8 hours, we landed at 11 am the next day.  It had been a VERY LONG (30 hour) DAY.  We were tired, cranky and the adventure had only begun.

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 ....

Getting out of London

You know how they say "even the best laid plans can go astray"?  Well, even the least laid plans can do the same.  Getting around London wasn't too bad.  We saw a sign for Cambridge - a legendary university town.  With Diana starting at the University of Wisconsin in a few months, we all thought this could be an interesting side trip.  We had lots of time and this was why we kept our plans flexible.

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.


My god!  They drive fast (I was doing 85 mph in the slow lane) and the lanes are a bit more narrow than I anticipated.  But after a good night sleep and a nutritious traditional English Breakfast we were on our way to York.  An old town.  The Romans used York as part of the northern line of forts to hold back the Scots who had a tendency to attack anyone to their south.  The old town made for a delightful walk and a terrifying drive down the city streets.

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 chocolate. It 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.

Newcastle upon Tyne

Newcastle was Mark's idea.  Newcastle hosts a wonderful brewery.  Also, the town sports lots of college students who turn Saturday evenings into a party atmosphere.  In the morning we headed to Newcastle.  By now, Laurel (who had reserved the automatic transmission car so that she could share the driving experience) made it clear she would not do any driving.  Not now.  Never.  Mark was on his own.  She was having enough problems just being a passenger, navigator, and just watching the roller coaster ride through the round-a-bouts (also known as circuses, twirl-a-bouts, circles and islands), down the straight a-ways, and weaving through the snowdrifts, sheep, and tractors.

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.


The royal mile has the Edinburgh Castle at one end and the Holyrood Palace on the other.  We started our tour on some hill with an observatory and a bunch of monuments.  Never quite figured out where that was, but it was not far from the mile. Erik did find things interesting enough to explore.  But eventually we got to the Castle.  A very impressive castle with lots of history.  The cold breeze that rushed through the castle was a stark reminder that it was still winter.  Which brings us to Holyrood Palace.  It was started about 1 mile down the hill from the castle by the royalty.  Eventually, the royalty found the location much to their liking (probably because it was not so windy & cold), completed the palace and moved in - leaving the castle to the military.

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).


This was actually the only evening we had any difficulty finding a room.  We actually stayed in Bristol.  No reason to visit Bristol, but it was close to Bath and we were growing desperate for a room for the night.  The next morning was about 1/2 hour drive to Bath - the ancient hot spring the Romans turned into a tourist attraction.  We spent several hours touring the baths, the pump room, and a costume museum.  In reality, if you have no interest in architecture or Roman history - Bath is a pleasant little town, but nothing extra ordinary.  Personally, I enjoyed what it had to offer (except the costume museum - but Laurel was like a little girl in a candy shop at the museum).

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.


Diana had been to Warwick Castle as part of the high school band trip a year before.  She mentioned that this was the best place they visited, so we headed for the town of Warwick.  This was delightful.  From the humble beginnings, the castle grew to be a huge castle that remained in use until the 1950s.  It is refurbished and decorated.  Wax figures give a good feel of life in a castle.  And the displays of armor and weapon were magnificent.  You can burn a few hours here very easily.

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.


We stayed in the Ruthin Castle - now a Best Western hotel.  The town of Ruthin is fairly small.  It is an ancient trading town in northern Wales.  I think you could see everything twice within a 2 hour period.  There was an interesting arts & craft mall.  These crafts were of very nice workmanship - not tacky woven baskets.  Glass, pewter, ceramics, paintings, etc. Also kind of pricey.  In general, we found the castle was more interesting.  Many open seating rooms, snooker table, gardens outside, and a their very own minature version of stonehedge.  A circle of stones with an altar in the middle was in the midst of a sheep pasture.  Unfortunately, the foot & mouth disease limited our distance and prevented us from any pagan rituals.  Bugger!  Oh, and there are peacocks everywhere.  Their cry in the morning wakes you to a sound similar to the sound of young children being flung from the parapets to their deaths.  An interesting way to greet the new day.

Dinner was a medieval banquet.  Our host 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.


After another traditional English breakfast, we made a mad dash from Ruthin, past the slate mines, over Horseshoe Pass, past an Abbey that had fallen into disrepair, onto the motorway and in a short 3 hours we found ourselves in London.  We returned the car (BTW, a Ford Focus - I was very impressed) with just over 1,500 miles added to the odometer.  We grabbed our luggage, got on the rail to Victoria station.  From there, we purchaced weekend passes on the underground and hopped on the circle line to Paddington Station.  From there, it was a short walk to our hotel just off of Lancaster Gate on Hyde Park.  Okay, the Landcaster Hotel should not be confused with the Royal Landcaster Hotel, but we were not planning to spend much time in the hotel.

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).

Coming Home

I am not sure if we were exhausted or if it was really so uneventful compared to the previous 12 days, but the trip home was seemed relatively relaxing.  The plane left on time.  We landed in a snowstorm.  The car was right where we left it (if not buried under several inches of snow).  And after trying to figure out what side of the road to drive on, we arrived home.  The dogs were still alive and glad to see us and the driveway was knee deep in snow.  Ahhh!  Home Sweet Home.


First, I really wished we had spent much more time in Britain.  I personally missed going through southern England.  But looking back, London is always fun (if not expensive) but York and Edinburgh were fantastic!  I am not sure if it was their long rich histories, beautiful architectures, charming people, or just the joy of a wonderful experience.  If you only have time for one castle, I would suggest Warwick Castle.  It had the best combination of walls, interior, and collection of stuff associated with castle life.  But each of the castles we visited had their own unique charms and I do not want to discourage you from any of those we visited or others.  And if you are equally constrained for time to see cathedrals, I would have to say St. Paul's Cathedral.  This is a much more difficult suggestion, especially considering how much we enjoyed the York minster and Edinburgh cathedral, and the strong recommendations we got the locals to see the cathedral in Durham (even thought we could not squeeze it into our schedule).

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 station.

The Glewwe Family in Prior Lake
Mark, Laurel, Diana, Erik

Us after dinner


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