October 12, 2017

Our 21-Day Summer Trek Around UK

Over the years, going on trips every now and then has become essential to our family life. I must admit that traveling projects are somewhat against my nature, being more an appreciate-what’s-around-the-house kind of guy. Thanks to my girls (or women should I now reluctantly say) and their irresistible influence on me, we still manage to plan noteworthy trips on a regular basis.

After the fact, I’m usually very happy that I went along with their mad traveling desires. In the end, it’s always interesting to discover and experience different cultures and points of view. It also makes us appreciate even more what we already have here around home sweet home.

This summer’s trip around the United Kingdom was no different.

So, without further due, let us share some thoughts and impressions of our exhilarating summer trip around beautiful cities and countryside of the UK.


LONDON

Our initial stop was the great city of London. And what a stop it was! 

Phlegmatic Hospitability and Efficiency

As usual, our first contact (often shock) with this new country was the airport and the inevitable ride back to the heart of the city. Despite tense context caused by recent terrorist events, effective security personnel made us feel calm and very secure. As with the airport, the motorway was crowded yet quite efficient.

Their use of traffic circles (roundabouts as they call them over there) is unbelievably impressive! These roundabouts are everywhere, sometimes 3 or 4 lanes wide. Despite going in the wrong direction and driving on the opposite side of the road (I know, they say we are the ones doing it wrong), very courteous, most drivers know what they are doing, properly use their relative place and space of the road and collectively speaking, probably get where they need to go much faster than we could.   

In fact, the entire UK transportation system is vastly developed and incredibly effective. In all major cities we visited, public transport was a relatively cheap option to get somewhere rather fast. Trains are also massively used to get people to work or to travel between cities.

On top of it and regardless of their phlegmatic nature and cold reputation, Londoners and British people in general were surprisingly hospitable. We felt quite welcome almost everywhere.

For instance, London underground attendants stand right next to the gates (not isolated in a booth like attendants do over here) and never hesitate to help you find your way around what they affectionally call “the Tube”.

The world’s first underground railway system has now expanded to 11 lines and handles up to 5 million passengers per day. You can rely on it along with the impressive fleet of London famous double-decker buses.

Forget your car in London, public transport and walking are simply the best way to visit. We used trains and some bus guided tours to get to sites further away from the center of the city. A car could be useful in the countryside but you can get by without one.

Traffic panels are rare in London as most the time instructions are inscribed directly on the road or sidewalk. That efficient custom translates into less scenic-view obstruction. Before crossing a street, every time we were please to be reminded to first look right (instead of left). Bus stop “boxes” were also very convenient.

As a result, all these well-organized settings made us feel safe and warm welcomed on the sometimes-crazy crowded London streets and walkways.

Memorably Handling Prosperity thru the Ages

In general, British citizens are proud people. They are proud of their country and city. They respect their leaders. They remember that their political and economical systems have collectively ensured them prosperity over ages. They have learned to protest and give their opinion with dignity, rejecting violence.

Over time, they built up and maintained tourism as a great motor to their economy. Policies like free museums promote that industry and provide good jobs. Wide spread all over amazingly vast London, we were astonished by the extent of interesting sites and attractions everywhere. Contrary to most city, London’s vibrant center seems to expand forever.

Just to name a few, the British Museum, the National Gallery and the Queen’s House at Greenwich are convincing illustrations of the success of the British free admission policy.

Providing security as the main occupation, policemen also act as great tourist guides, willingly posing for pictures or giving insightful directions. It may seem usual but it’s second nature to them, they represent their city and as we said before, are very proud of it. Another example is mounted police almost being an integral part of the show during the daily change of the guard in front of Buckingham Palace.







London is a delightful blend between history and modernity.

The construction of the London Eye, completed in 2000 for the millennium festivities, is a great example of ongoing efforts to develop interesting tourist attractions and activities. Visitors just cannot resist the amazing view from that slow moving majestic wheel.

At the other end of the spectrum, superb historical sites like Windsor Castle are wonderfully maintained and animated. Residence still used by Queen Elisabeth herself, you don’t want to miss that kind of magnificent Royal setting even if it’s a little bit out of the way. With retrospect, our limited 3-hour guided stop was too short. We would recommend getting to Windsor by train on your own. Traveling from London included, you can easily occupy a full day shopping around town and taking more time to visit the illustrious castle. Also by sure to catch the classically colorful changing of the guard just before midday.


On the same day, our bus tour took us to Bath and Stonehenge, which was too long of a ride… In our opinion, Bath, another typical roman settlement, can be skipped. Mysterious countryside around Stonehenge were intriguing but still very far. In fact, it gave us our first taste of “English summer”: a torrential wind and rain storm that got us soaking wet in a matter of seconds despite all our rain gear. It took us 4 hours to get dry on our way back.  

Speaking of treks out of town, we would also recommend considering the train and separate days to visit Oxford and Cambridge, which we similarly did on a too short same-day bus tour. All the history around these two renowned university cities and their numerous colleges is just too rich to be condensed into a few hours.

Another suggestion would be to travel to Greenwich like we did via the DLR (Docklands Light Railway). That train service was Included with our public transport pass. You can easily fill a day with a lot to visit in that somewhat remote area. Among other sites, you must see the Royal Observatory and the Queen’s House. We discovered our best British fish and chips in a tiny Greenwich pub: that fresh “small” fish tasted so awesome!
 
Now that we think about it, life in the UK was less different than anticipated. In London, businesses, tv stations, stores, restaurants and even food chains are pretty similar to what you can expect in any major North American city. Our credit cards were accepted almost everywhere. Along with surroundings, only local delicacies and pubs reminded us we were in a foreign country.

Speaking of delicacy, Harrods steakhouse was one of our best experience. You would never believe a steak served in a convenience store could be so delightful. A tad expensive but probably the best we ever had. Pretty funny thing though: that juicy bill didn’t qualify for our usual credit card restaurant cash back, as it was considered a department store purchase.

It was also nice to have a glimpse at insanely expensive chocolates!

An unexpected feature of contemporary London was its very environment-friendly nature. Probably ahead of its time, London has been green for quite a while. For instance, smog and coal heating problems forced UK officials to pass the Clean Air Act in 1956. The result today is the conservation of several parks all over town and lots of trees in many streets. Even on vacation, many vast beautiful parks like St-James’s Park can really brighten your day.

On top of the most developed public transport system in the world, London streets amenities are adapted to bike riding. Car and bus drivers are very respectful as well. Morning rush hour clutters sometimes mistakenly made us think we were assisting to a grand tour or bike race.



EDINBURGH

After more than a week in London, we were glad than a pleasant train ride took us to our second major stop. Without a doubt, Edinburgh and Scotland in general was our favourite destination of the trip. Our lovely comfortable apartment probably had much to do with it.

Don’t get us wrong, London is nice and that one-of-a-kind vibrant metropole is a must-see. But let’s face it, it’s overwhelmingly crowded and kind of expensive.

Proudly Surviving Around Rugged Wonders

For our family, Edinburgh was the most pleasant setting of our adventure despite its cold, windy sometimes rainy weather and the fact it’s always jam-packed with visitors. They say about a million people live in Edinburgh every day and half of them are tourists. Many historical marvels, numerous cozy restaurants and shops were within a 15-minute walk. Further attractions were easily accessible by bus or train.

Outside the urban confines of the city, nature was incredibly accessible and astonishingly beautiful. For instance, the Highlands and especially Glen Coe felt like heaven on earth. Amazing sunshine piercing through the clouds after an extensive gray rainy bus ride probably helped. You had to be there and unfortunately, pictures will never be able to give really credit to that divine scenery.


Scottish people are also immensely proud and kind of have a right to. Despite harsh terrain and terrible weather conditions, they always manage to accomplish much and many try to live in agreement with nature. You better bring a warm rain coat and dress in layers in Scotland as we found it quite cold in the heart of summer. I imagine that even Canadians used to snow like us probably would have a rough time during windy humid Scottish winters.

Having experienced sort of chilly weather all over UK, we now understand better why British businessmen wear 4-piece suit all the time. We still don’t have a clue why Scotsmen deem it necessary to air-condition it right under by wearing a kilt. Showing your manhood gotta have its limits. On the other hand, it sure explains why they like scotch or whisky so much. Efficiency being the name of the game in the UK, they even found out the best way to relax efficiently.


Speaking of having a drink, pubs all over UK (it seems like there’s one at each street corner) are the best spot to do so. After you get by the fact you must order at the counter, pubs are also a great place to have a nice meal.

These people surely are not afraid of change and always stay confident to get thru it. They also believe changes ultimately make things better. One of our expedition guide, talking about the infamous Brexit, told us to come visit while it lasted, to enjoy relatively affordable prices while the balance was tilting our way. He also had great understanding that tourism was very important and would eventually be one of the major factors bringing the British pound back to its better days.

We took a day to visit Glasgow. The off-peak train service, cheap and effective was a great way to travel over there. More modern, Glasgow was interesting but seemed messier. We were glad of choosing Edinburgh as our Scottish home base.  

Like London, Scotland is surprisingly eco-friendly. For example, heating is already produced 60% thru renewable energy and legislative programs in the works target getting to 100% within 10 years. Similarly, electric cars are trending and a significant government goal is to completely phase out new petrol and diesel vehicles by 2032. All this despite challenging conditions facing them like their very harsh cold weather and the fact distances between cities and small towns are big in that still vastly rural country.

We were told organic culture, today representing about 60% of total production, was swiftly trending back up as quality seems to be favored over quantity. For instance, equivalent organic sheep farming is spread out over 6 times more space but preserves land and production quality in the long run. You can tell the difference by the number or density of white dots in a field or hill. You could easily draw a parallel with dividend investing.

There’s a lot of sheep (the animal not blind follower) in the UK. For instance, sheep population is maintained a little over one sheep per capita in Scotland and lamb consumption is about 3 per capita. Only lambs, sheep under two years old, produce meat tender enough.  

Throughout the trip, communication was sometimes an issue for my two ladies as they are not used to British English. It was harder in Scotland as locals can have an exotic pronunciation and intonation. For example, the “gh” termination of Edinburgh was often lost in the “bur” or their “ch” pronunciation almost sounds like profound spitting so Loch Ness became quite a blurry lake. I personally managed to be ok with all of it but, from time to time, had to listen more carefully. Let’s just say some funny situations made everyone laugh as a result. 


MANCHESTER

Despite its brisk Scottish weather, we reluctantly left comfy Edinburgh for our next UK destination. That transit was the only problematic one of the trip. The train we selected ended up being very crowded and stopped everywhere. Space for luggage was minimal. It was a mistake to travel on a weekend Saturday.

Fortunately, many courteous passengers helped and after a long exhausting trek, we manage to get to our downtown Manchester hotel.

Broiling Temperaments Fueling Industrial Revolution

Another surprise awaited us in the lobby. The Comic Con was next door and many participants stayed at our hotel so funny dressed people everywhere put a little pizazz in our weekend. 

At first glance, we noticed Manchester’s original architecture, a by-product of innovative minds in that vibrant city. We were a little disheartened when we got a chance to explore. Dirty streets along with construction everywhere in seemingly hostile neighborhoods sometimes made us feel slightly out of place. A restaurant waitress was even very intrigued why we would choose their city for a vacation.

Unexpectedly, communication was even worse as Mancunians talk very fast and most of them showed less patience. We still managed to have a good time and find very interesting attractions after we got over our initial bad sentiment.

Like everywhere else in the UK, well established public transport, particularly the tram, was efficient to get around. An attendant even came out of nowhere to help us, unknowing tourists, deal with the automatic ticket machine.

Sports and physical activity seemed popular all over the city. We came across a well-organized triathlon. Brave athletes in their swimming stint had to conquer almost-freezing canal water. Thinking about it, we oddly didn’t see a single pool in the entire trip. Space is limited in the cities and backyards have football goals or even trampolines but no swimming pools. Maybe outside ones are not practical in cold UK weather.  

I guess broiling temperaments facilitate surviving a chilly climate and may be a prerequisite to evolution as a lot of inventions and industrial progress came out of Manchester resolve and genius. In that sense, children seemed to especially like trains and machines presented at the Museum of Science and Industry.

We took a day to venture to the other end of the first ever train route and were very glad to visit Liverpool. 

Much more pleasant, Liverpool was quite entertaining. We probably would have preferred to stay there. 

Then again, maybe the omnipresent Beatles and striking sea breeze would have been irritating after a couple days.




Back in Manchester, the Police museum, only opened on Tuesdays, was refreshing. 

We understand their need for all that equipment in that sort of turbulent city. 

The Football museum was also a lot of fun and greatly showed all the passion surrounding that religion-like sport.






Getting Back Home

Near the end of the week, usual mixed emotions invaded us, typical at that stage of any trip. Our exciting venture was coming to an end but we were glad to head back home. We always get a little homesick after that long.

After our last train misadventure, we were very fortunate to get assistance from a very kind train station attendant to properly plan our travel back to the airport. It involved a couple transfers but went very smoothly.  

We were happy to transit in London and have one last glimpse at the megapole. After a nice meal and decent sleep in Gatwick, we were ready to face air travel madness. The airport was impressive and very crowded. It felt like a shopping mall on Christmas Eve.

Despite some ear problem for Lady C and I, all in all, the flight went well.

Naturally, we enjoyed being back to our humble comfortable home. Photo presentations compiled by fast-growing-up C will enable us to relish and share souvenirs of our trip for a long while.

Probably for the first time ever, I’m already eager for the next one!

Photos by Lady C


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