2018 June – UK & Ireland
                      Giants Causeway, Northern Ireland

Day 1 – London, UK & Oxford, England

We flew into London from Texas on British Airways – a straight 9-hour flight that arrived after breakfast. Heathrow is a maze and we had several things to take care of before setting out – picked our International Wi-fi/phone package right outside the exit by the Lost baggage and then validated our 8-day BritRail pass right at the airport exit at the Airport Express Train station. We also had the ‘National Touring Pass’ that covered major UK attractions, but we couldn’t exchange it at the airport, even though that information was provided by someone out there. For that, we set out via train to St Paul’s Cathedral Info Center, where our printed email was exchanged for the pass. By then it was already mid-day, so we rested for a bit at the hotel (which was conveniently located not too far from Paddington Station) and then set off for our first adventure.

                           Oxford, UK

The very well-connected London Train system has 2 kinds of trains – the underground Tube that operates within the city (we purchased pre-paid Oyster cards for that at the airport which can conveniently be refilled at any Tube station. The second kind of trains are over the ground trains that operate between London main stations (Paddington, King’s Cross, Victoria etc.) and little towns outside London and/or neighboring countries.  

Trains in UK

Our first stop was Oxford …we had planned to stop at Windsor on the way but that would have meant getting only 30 minutes at the castle, not worth the money (tickets are about $30 p.p.), so we decided to postpone it. Oxford is a town in the South East region of England and is known worldwide as the home of the University of Oxford, the oldest university in the English speaking world.  Buildings in Oxford demonstrate notable examples of every English architectural period since the late Saxon period. Oxford is rightly known as the “city of dreaming spires”, a very well laid-out city to walk around and explore at leisure. Good, cheap food is readily available and we made the best use of it. A good stop close to London for a quick trip!

Day 2 – England: Dover Cliffs & Mayfield Farms

                  White Cliffs of Dover

After a good night’s rest, we got over our jet lag, kinda!, and set off for a rather packed day. The White Cliffs of Dover is the name given to the South-East region of English coastline facing the Strait of Dover and Calais, France. The cliff face, which reaches a height of 350 feet (110 m), owes its striking appearance to its composition of chalk accented by streaks of black flint. The cliffs, on both sides of the town of Dover in Kent, stretch for 8 miles. After a 2-hr easy journey from London Charing Cross station, we landed at Dover Priory station and then took a 30-minute walk up to the visitor center. Even though the cliffs are visible off and on while walking, the real beauty can only be appreciated once you take one of the several hikes from the Visitor Center. The cliffs are white, the grass is very green and that day the sky was very blue – all in all, it made for a perfect walk in good weather. Another way to admire the cliffs would have been to take the ferry (maybe even to Calais, France, just across the bay) which would have shown the full glory of the looming large cliffs.

                                                              Mayfield Lavender Farms

Trains were leaving from there almost every 30-40 minutes to our next destination, but knowing our tight schedule we made a mad dash for it (and I mean mad dash!!!!) and just managed to get into our next train to Woodmasterne via London/St Pancras. Mayfield Lavender Farms just a wee bit South of London is a beautiful place to visit between June & August when the Lavenders are in full bloom. We were lucky enough to catch the start of the bloom and lost ourselves in the wonderful rows of purple lavender fields and flowers. There are buses from the several stations that serve this area that get you to the farm but there are also taxis available on demand to take you back from the farm. We spent a relaxing day breathing in the scent of lavender…the sun shone and the vibe was truly blissful. Entrance fee was an amazing £1 per adult, with free parking for those who drove. A short escape from the madness of London. I cannot recommend this place enough!!

Of course, that was not the end of our day, we took a train from there to Nottingham (2 hours north of London) to visit our relatives for dinner. The train broke down (schedule changes seemed to happen quite often on the trip) and we were transferred on to another train an hour later, further cutting into the dinner time. But the trains are so comfortable (we had bought first-classes passes) that it certainly did not bother us.

Day 3 – England/Wales: Stonehenge, Bath & Cardiff/Wales

                              Stonehenge

Stonehenge is a prehistoric monument in Wiltshire, England (closest train station is Salisbury). There are tourist buses running every 15 minutes (20-minutes journey) that take you from the train station to the actual monuments (tickets extra). Our National Trust Touring Pass covered our entry fees. It consists of a ring of standing stones, with each stone around 13 feet high, 7 feet wide and weighing around 25 tons. The stones are set within earthworks in the middle of the most dense complex of Neolithic and Bronze Age monuments in England, including several hundred burial mounds. Archaeologists believe it was constructed from 3000 BC to 2000 BC.  The stones are a wonder to experience especially considering they are a mystery that was never solved. It is easily a half-day trip and can be done on the way to Bath which was our next stop.

                 Roman Baths in Bath, UK

Bath, a 2-hr train journey from Salisbury, is the larges city in the ceremonial county of Somerset, England, known for its Roman-built baths. It sits in the valley of the River Avon, 97 miles west of London.  The city became a spa  when the Romans built baths and a temple in the valley of the river. The very charming city is fun to walk around and has several museums including the Museum of Bath Architecture, the Victoria Art Gallery, etc. The glory and engineering marvel of the Roman Baths can be witnessed at the center of the city (tickets to be purchased) in full splendor as you take a tour of the area. This was definitely one of the highlights for us.

Since we were already at almost the western end of England, we decided to venture a bit further into Wales just to get a feel for the country. A 1-hr ride from Bath turned into 2.5 hours because of multiple train/bus transfers. The city of Cardiff is the county town and part of the Eurocities network of the largest European cities. Nothing much to look at, except the Castle of Cardiff close to the station, it was a small town until the early 19th century, its prominence as a major part for the transport of coal following the arrival of industry in the region contributed to its rise as a major city. We waked around there for a bit searching for Welsh food (which no one could help us with), had non-Welsh dinner

Drinks in Wales

there and then set off back to our base in London.

Day 4 – England: English Villages and around London

Our last day in England, we decided to take it a bit easy (by our standards). Late morning, we set off for Cotswold – a set of charming villages in the heart of England, designated as an Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty. This is set in south central England with the Cotswold Hills, a range of rolling hills which rise from the meadows of the upper Thames to an escarpment, known as the Cotswold Edge. The area has several villages connected by bus service (main train station is Moreton-on-the Marsh) but private car is the best way to explore this area. We chose Bourton-on-the-Water for our adventure… would have loved to also see Stow-on-Wold, Chipping Campden and Lower Slaughter – some of the other beautiful villages in the area, but this experience of one village itself was worth the trip.

   Bourton-on-the-Water, Cotswold, UK
Windsor Castle

On the way back to London, we stopped in the town of Windsor for a peek at the Windsor Castle but missed the window for seeing from the inside. Even from the outside though we could see a lot of it and imagine the grandeur inside. The station itself gives a very royal feel!

In the late afternoon, completely exhausted from our whirlwind tour of England, we came back to the city and walked around taking in the famous London landmarks like Buckingham Palace, London Eye, Trafalgar Square and the humongous Hyde Park which took us about 40 minutes to cross from end to the other on foot. It helps that most of these areas are within walking distance of each other but beware, all those steps add to the exhaustion unless you have the whole day to laze around!

    London Eye

Day 5 – Scotland: Edinburgh Castle

Edinburgh Castle, Scotland

Goodbye England, welcome Scotland! After a very comfortable 4.5-hour train ride to Edinburgh (with some awesome scenery on the way by the ocean), we ended up in Edinburgh around lunch time! Full from the food served on the train, we headed straight to the Edinburgh Castle, a brisk 25 minute walk (mostly uphill) from the Edinburgh Station. (Since we had our luggage with us, we were able to put it in a luggage locker at the adjoining bus station while we explored the castle and Edinburgh city).  Luckily our Historic Scotland Explorer Pass ($92/family) could grant us access to the castle. Edinburgh Castle is a historic fortress sitting on a dormant volcano which dominates the skyline of the city of Edinburgh, Scotland, from its position on the Castle Rock. Archaeologists have established human occupation of the rock since at least the Iron Age (2nd century AD), although the nature of the early settlement is unclear. The site continued to be a royal residence until 1633. From the 15th century the castle’s residential role declined, and by the 17th century it was principally used as military barracks with a large garrison. Honestly, the castle didn’t do it for us – maybe we were too tired, maybe it was too cold, maybe we had seen enough by then – but nothing stood out as truly spectacular! After seeing room after room of the same things, we roamed around a bit in Edinburgh and then took the next train to Glasgow, just about 30 minutes from there.

Luckily Glasgow is very Uber-friendly, because by now we were in no mood to walk any more. Since our hotel was in the middle of downtown, we managed to catch some rest, roam around town, grab a scrumptious dinner and called it a day!

Day 6 – Scotland: Stirling Castle & Luss, Scottish Highlands

             Stirling Castle, Scotland

The day started with us catching another train to Stirling, to visit the “other” famous Scottish Castle – the Stirling Castle! This was also a 20-25-minute uphill walk from the station (theme being that all castles were built atop hills for a show of power and also for security). Now this was an impressive castle!! The castle sits on Castle Hill which forms part of the Stirling Sill geological formation. It is surrounded on three sides by steep cliffs, giving it a strong defensive position. Its strategic location, guarding what was, until the 1890s, the farthest downstream crossing of the River Forth, has made it an important fortification in the region from the earliest times. Very much a palace as well as a fortress, several Scottish Kings & Queens have been crowned at Stirling, including  Mary, Queen of Scots, in 1542, and others were born or died there. Besides the free guided tour that was offered, there were several real-life actors at various spots inside the castle that gave us a good feel of life in those times! At a distance we could also see the fort of William Wallace (Braveheart!) but didn’t get the time to tour it. Recommended!

A short train ride from there (via Glasgow) is the Dumbarton Castle, which has the longest recorded history of any stronghold in Scotland. It overlooks the Scottish town of Dumbarton, and sits on a plug of volcanic basalt known as Dumbarton Rock which is 240 feet high. While the scenery there was beautiful, what with the ocean next to it, contrasting colors and awesome weather, this is not truly a castle-castle. It is a smallish cavalry house set atop a hill from where Queen Mary Scott set sail. Nevertheless, it was worth the slight detour on our way to Balloch which is considered the start if the awesome Scottish Highlands area. Sitting by the beautiful Loch Lomond and a 1-hour journey from Dumbarton, Balloch itself is not very charming but serves as a gateway to Luss.  

The food at Luss, Scottish Highlands

The Highlands are a historic region of Scotland. Culturally, the Highlands and the Lowlands diverged from the later Middle Ages into the modern period, when Lowland Scots replaced Scottish Gaelic throughout most of the Lowlands. Luss, situated at the bottom tip of the Scottish Highlands, is a conservation village visited by many tourists, and has a large car and coach park with a number of tourist-oriented shops. Many of Luss’ cottages are very uniquely picturesque. It became famous as a result of being the main outdoor location for the Scottish TV drama series ‘Take the High Road’. Nestled right by Lake Lomond, it offers awesome vistas of the lake and the scenery surrounding it. We had some good Scottish food and desserts at one of the small coffee shops there and then caught the bus back to Balloch for our train journey back to Glasgow.

                                               Luss, Scottish Highlands

Day 7 – Northern Ireland: Giants Causeway & around

Goodbye Scotland, hello Ireland! A short 45-minute flight from Glasgow is the beautiful country of Ireland, definitely our favorite part of the trip. We rented a car from the airport and drove 3 hours north to the edge of Northern Ireland (also part of UK) via Belfast. Driving on the left-hand side of the road was a bit of a challenge initially, but because the car was automatic, we got used to it. The drivers were kinda rude though, kept flipping me off, perhaps because I was still trying to find my way around and getting used to the many traffic circles at every nook and corner. We headed straight to the Giants Causeway area by the Atlantic – the visitor center bus (which runs every 15 minutes) offered us a ride to the actual Causeway, thanks to our National Trust Touring Pass.

                                                                   Giants Causeway, Northern Ireland

The Giant’s Causeway is steeped in myth and legend, carved from the coast by the mighty giant who left behind an ancient home, says the folklore. It’s no surprise this place is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. The thousands of basalt columns at Giant’s Causeway are the result of intense volcanic and geological activity. There are several hikes that take you around the area where the deep blue sea crushes the basalt columns and continue to change the landscape. The Giant’s Causeway provides a glimpse into the Earth’s most ancient past. An epic 60-million-year-old legacy to the cooling and shrinking of successive lava flows. Our very very favorite spot on this trip!

After spending a couple of hours there, pictures galore, we set off to the Carrick-A-Rede Rope Bridge about 6 miles from there. The small rope bridge, approximately 20 meters in length hangs over rough blue seas down below. The bridge connects the mainland to the tiny island of Carrick-a-Rede. The shallows on the west side were a beautiful blue in calm sunny weather. On the east side the deeper water was green and dark with the shadows of cliffs and caves and patches of brown and red seaweeds. Amazing sea birds came ashore to breed. We were able to spot noisy kittiwakes and guillemots on crowded cliff ledges. There was a small fisherman boat and hut preserved on the west side of the bridge. The guides only allow a certain number of people to cross at the same time on the narrow swinging bridge. A ticket is needed to cross the bridge and the National Trust ticket office closes at 5:00pm. (Free Car parking). Several hikes were marked all along the cliffs but we spent most of our time taking the hike to/from the bridge (1 km ups and downs each way)

                                   Dark Hedges, Northern Ireland

Even though it was getting late for us and we had to drive all the way back to Dublin, we took a minor detour on the way and headed to what is known as the Dark Hedges. This is an avenue of beech trees along Bregagh Road in County Antrim, Northern Ireland. The trees form an atmospheric tunnel that has been used as a location in HBO’s popular television series Game of Thrones, which has resulted in the avenue becoming a tourist attraction. Not much to do there except admire the way trees have woven themselves into each other from opposite sides of the road – quite fascinating! Right after that we set off for Dublin to our hotel, which was a castle converted into a hotel. Dublin (Ireland) is no longer part of UK so it is recommended that you change your Sterling Pounds to Euros here.

Glad we booked the Fitzpatrick Castle Hotel for the night, a charming little castle with rather large rooms (especially compared to the dingy London hotel rooms), it gave us an experience of staying at a castle for the night too!

                Our Castle Hotel, Ireland

Day 8 – Ireland: Cliffs of Moher & Galway (West Coast)

Since we wanted to experience the castle hotel for at least one night, early next morning we switched to a typical Irish B&B – the Beechwood Country House in the upscale Malahide area of Dublin. It was drop-dead gorgeous! Too bad we could not hang around much to enjoy it as we had a packed day ahead of us, this being our last day of the vacation. We stopped for a huge breakfast at the Malahide Castle – the buffet variety was amazing and it quickly fueled us up for the onward 3-hr journey to the Cliffs of Moher, at the other end of Ireland, clear across the country. However, the Irish scenery with the green rolling hills, and the specks of white sheep on the lush grass is quite spectacular so we didn’t mind the drive.

At the Cliffs of Moher, Ireland

The Cliffs of Moher are sea cliffs located at the southwestern edge in County ClareIreland. They run for about 14 kilometers. At their southern end, they rise 390 ft above the Atlantic Ocean at Hag’s Head, and, eight kilometers to the north, reach their maximum height of 702 ft just north of O’Brien’s Tower, a round stone tower near the midpoint of the cliffs. From the cliffs, and from atop the tower, visitors can see the Aran Islands in Galway Bay, the Maumturks and Twelve Pins mountain ranges to the north in County Galway, and Loop Head to the south. It was a very short walk from the Visitor Center to the vista point from where we could see the cliffs in their full glory, with the shimmering water and hundreds of birds flying around. The longer walk takes a couple of hours and takes you to the far end of the cliffs, but since we had Galway on our agenda next, we continued on.

                   Galway, Ireland

Galway sits by the ocean just about an hour away from the Cliffs and is a very typical Irish fishing village. It is replete with pubs and restaurants, and of course thousands of tourists. We got the famous English Fish ‘n’ Chips there, sat by the river side on the grass and hungrily devoured them. Just a word of caution – we encountered quite a few drunkards on the riversides around there, since booze flows freely there! After spending sometime just hanging out there, we headed back to the hotel. On the way we passed the lovely City of Dublin, and got a peek (from the outside) at Guinness brewery there.

Came back to the hotel and started packing for our journey back home!

 

 

Day 9 – Back Home

Overall this was a fun trip though nothing stood out as truly truly spectacular! We have traveled a lot all over the world and are at a point now that just ‘seeing’ things is not doing it for us – maybe we need to slow down and ‘experience’ them! We had an early morning flight to Texas via London, which was mostly uneventful.

                                                             Hyde Park, London

Some scenic spots we could not do because of lack of time:

England: Harry Potter World (north of London), Stratford-Upon-Avon (Shakespeare’s birthplace) farther up from the Cotswold

Scotland: Scottish Highlands: Port of Oban, Isles of Skye, Glenviaduct (Train journey to and beyond Mallag)

Wales: Northern Scenic Part (Conwy & Lladudno) – we swapped it for Cotswold area & London

Ireland: Kylemore Abbey, Ring of Kerry, Ring of Beara, Blarney Stone, Waterford

Northern Ireland: Titanic Museum, Belfast

At the Cliffs of Moher, Ireland
Ireland Scenery

 

 

 

 

Trafalgar Square, London

Do’s and Don’ts:

  1. The 8-day Britrail passes cost us about $450 p.p. because we upgraded them to First Class for a nominal fee. If you want to travel the way we did (jumping from train to train daily), this is certainly the way to go …. Highly recommended! On longer journeys, they serve you tea, coffee, snacks and sometimes breakfast and lunch too! Well worth the price difference.
  2. Similarly, for the London Tube (Underground) tickets – Oyster Card is highly recommended. Take it for a higher than needed denomination – you can always have the money refunded back to you (in cash) at Heathrow on your way out!
  3. Most of Europe is a walker’s paradise – make sure to pack your walking shoes – especially useful when you must run to the train stations to catch the train/s which we seemed to be doing almost everyday 😊
  4. We bought the National Trust Touring Pass ($79/family) for UK and the Scotland Explorer Pass ($92/family) that covered the major attractions in UK/Northern Ireland/Scotland. Even if you manage to check out 2-3 spots per pass, these passes are well worth it. Too bad they didn’t cover uber-popular attractions like the Windsor Castle and the Roman Baths in Bath.
  5. Trains tend to change their schedules a lot because of construction, repairs, weather etc. – download the appropriate UK Trains app and make sure you have the latest information at your fingertips.
  6. Make sure you have some cash handy (Pounds in UK, Euros in Ireland) – most buses, luggage lockers etc. do not accept Credit Cards.
  7. The weather – is completely unpredictable!! Even in the middle of June it was cold and windy almost all the time. Even though we diligently checked the weather every morning and dressed accordingly, there was no holding the weather guys to it!
  8. Ireland – We had a pretty bad experience with the Car Rental in Dublin, Ireland. They behaved like street hawkers trying to outbid each other. On top of that they charged us all kinds of fees (Northern Ireland fees, insurance fees, additional taxes etc.) even though we had it all booked and paid for in advance. They claimed that we needed a letter from our bank in case we needed to use our Credit Card for insurance!
  9. We picked up a TEP Wi-fi package at the Heathrow airport that gave us unlimited wifi access in all of UK & Ireland and could support up to 4 phones. A total lifesaver! It does need to be charged very often (especially if you are traveling with a teenager! 😊)
                                            Cliffs of Moher, Ireland

Top 5:

  1. Northern Ireland: Giants Causeway & Carrick-a-Rede
  2. England: White Cliffs of Dover
  3. Ireland: The lush green scenery in general
  4. England: Villages of Cotswold
  5. Scotland: Scottish Highlands (Village of Luss)
                   Stirling Castle, Scotland

                          Windsor Castle from afar

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