England & Wales

England & Wales

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I had the pleasure of taking a 9 day trip over to England and Wales. Unlike my usual travel adventures this one was less structure and I did not join a tourgroup. For me this trip was more about seeing friends and revisiting London for a short reunion.

I discovered that I do miss London as much as I expected – perhaps even more – and my old neighborhood is as warm and inviting as I remember. My knowledge of the Tube system was only slightly rusty but I can still maneuver it like a master – and it was a cruel reminder of just how poor subway and train systems really are in the US.

My explorations are less than prolific this time but I loved every minute of this trip. The highlight reel includes:

  • Long winding roads are far more enjoyable when in a convertible sports car.
  • The stars on a clear night are truly amazing and even more so when there’s a telescope involved.
  • Tesco baked goods are as tasty as I remembered.
  • Despite living in a city for some time you can learn a lot of new things during a 4 hour walking tour (and you can steal the thunder from the tour guide by doing his job for him).
  • Fancy dinners with new friends.
  • Shopping.
  • Finding my groove while driving on the left side of the road; it may have taken longer than I wished but it was worth it once it happened.
  • A Doctor Who themed tour of Cardiff to show me some very familiar places.
  • The rugged beauty of Raglan Castle and the sunny afternoon we spent exploring it.
  • Meeting some truly amazing people in the middle of no where in Shropshire and loving every minute of it.

And the biggest highlight of all was the friends I imposed upon along the way and the awesome travel partners who kept me on the correct side of the road and sane.

Now onto the good stuff.. stories with pictures!

Day 1 – Aug 28 – London to Chedburgh

Everytime I fly to Europe I take an overnight flight – and this is despite telling myself that next time I will avoid doing that. But each time it comes to planning and booking a flight I can’t help but gravitate back towards the overnight flight. I can’t convince myself that sleep is worth more than a full day in Europe – why would I want to land at night, rush myself to a hotel, and then force myself to sleep? Instead I prefer forcing myself to sleep in an uncomfortable position on a plane, waking up with a crick in my neck, and then stumbling through customs and dragging myself to the end destination – and that’s all before I spend a day touring and exploring my new destination.

Really – when you look at it that way it’s a lose / lose situation. And I never learn my lesson.

So, as per my standard operations, I booked myself an overnight flight, slept uncomfortably on the plane with my neighbor’s elbow firmly planted in my side, woke up with a crick in my neck, stumbled through customs, dragged myself through Heathrow, onto a crammed Tube, held myself upright for an hour until I arrived at King’s Cross station, wobbled my way to the train bound for Cambridge, shuffled to change trains at Cambridge for one bound to Bury St Edmunds and fell into the car of my friend.

Thankfully the night was relaxing and started with an amazing dinner that simply covered the dining room table – and provided us with the perfect excuse to eat outside.

Spending the night with Louise, her boyfriend and his parents reminded me how much I missed the culture and the little nuances that made me love the UK so much. We watched a hint of Top Gear and topped it off with QI – two shows that I don’t get to see back in the US but desperately wished I could! Then the night was topped off with a dip in the hot tub beneath the stars. The telescope came out and we were able to see Jupiter and four of it’s moons.

It was an afternoon of country living at it’s finest!

Day 2 – Bury St. Edmunds to London

I absolutely love exploring small European cities as they always have the most interesting sights. So when offered the opportunity to visit the near by town of Bury St Edmunds I jumped at the chance. It was just a few minutes down the road from my friend’s home and it granted me the opportunity to see some truly interesting sights; things I never could stumble upon in the US.

I dashed off to some of my favorite stores while I left my friend to her own shopping. I paced myself though and walked away with a manageable amount of bags. I loved the shopping center that they had but I may simply be biased since it had all my favorite stores – New Look, Peacocks, River Island.. just to name a few.

What I find mos fascinating, and foreign, about traveling in Europe is the common ancient structures or ruins you can stumble upon while out and about. The Abbey Gardens in Bury St Emunds also were home to the Abbey ruins which I found fascinating. While my initial attention was caught by St Edmundsbury Cathedral I nearly overlooked what was all around me – the remaining ruins of the Bury St Edmunds Abbey. It was simply a massive structure and what remains of it now are the flint stone walls that have withstood the test of time. What amazed me even more than that was how the activity of the garden simply wound it’s way around and through the site. In the US this would have been cordoned off and covered with “do not touch” signs as if that extra precaution would preserve the outdoor structure longer.

Later that afternoon, after thoroughly exploring the Abbey Gardens and ruins, I jumped back on a train to London and was off to start the next leg of my trip.

Day 3 – London

My travel partner, Jess, joined me late on the night of Day 2 after fighting her way from Heathrow to our hotel just outside the British Museum. After a short night of sleep, for the both of us, we made our way over to Piccadilly Circus to join a walking tour that we had found on Living Social. It was a four hour walking tour from Piccadilly down to Parliament with a few surprises and stops along the way.

I learned a bit more about London through the eyes of our tour guide but also managed to give part of the tour myself (I apparently retained a lot of knowledge from my former days in London). It was a fun way to spend the more but it was utterly exhausting for two girls who had barely slept the night before and had a week of activities planned. We got to see the department store (now a Waterstones) where “Are You Being Served?” was set to take place. We toured several shops famous for providing exclusive merchandise to the royal family – complete with the royal seals. We visited Fortnum and Mason, a popular department store, and saw the American Bar (complete with a baseball cap from Holy Cross – a little reminder of home). We saw both Green Park and St. James Park, and stopped for a moment to take in the sights of Trafalgar Square, with a brief visit to the very center of Westminster.

Following the tour we took a visit to Westminster Abbey. Surprisingly I had never seen this beautiful Abbey while I was living in London – it was one of the few sites in London that I had managed to overlook while living there. The Abbey had so much to offer in the way of architecture, history and opulence. I had completely underestimated everything about Westminster Abbey but am so pleased that I got to explore it in full. I think the favorite aspect of Westminster Abbey was the number of familiar names who had been buried there – Chaucer, Dickens, and Austen just to name a few of the long and impressive list.

That night we joined two local friends and made our way to the posh and opulent Criterion Restaurant in Piccadilly Circus. Earlier in the day, during our walking tour, we had been given a brief glimpse of the inside of the restaurant. It was a treat to eat there and soak in the atmosphere best noted for being the meeting place of Sherlock Holmes and Watson.

Day 4 – London

Shopping, shopping, shopping. It was a happy day for me 🙂

I also attempted to meet friends at the Tower of London but managed to miss them in passing so I also did get to enjoy a round trip tube ride, and an hour of people watching at the Tower. I’ve always been a fan of that part of town with all it’s beautiful sites and architecture – the Tower of London, Tower Bridge, All Hallows-by-the-Tower, and City Hall across the Thames.

Tower Hill also happened to be the place where I got to meet friends for dinner and drinks at a local pub. It was a merry event once we all came together.

Day 5 – London to Cardiff

Being the geeks that we are we could not pass up the opportunity to visit the Doctor Who Experience in Kensington. Along the way we discovered that we’d left quite a bit earlier than we needed to and made a quick detour to Kensington Gardens to see the Palace. There we discovered a wall of memory in dedication to Princess Diana. It was a truly beautiful and moving sight to see how her memory has not faded in the years since her passing.

I’m glad that I went to the Doctor Who Experience but I had to admit it was truly geared towards children and not the adult fans of the series. I enjoyed the costume exhibits but overall it was underwhelming.

We stopped by a Pizza Express (which I had been thoroughly craving for 4 years since I last lived there) for lunch and met a Canadian traveler who chose to ate with us. I always enjoy meeting new people along the way.

Following that we quickly made our way back to the hotel with a short stop over at the British Museum. We viewed the inner courtyard with its beautiful dome and caught a glance of the Rosetta Stone.

Thursday was the day of the mad dash – running from one place to the next and constantly late. After the British Museum we left for Gatwick Airport where we met our Scandanavian friends and travel parters in crime. We rented a car and I had the pleasure of driving. I loved it! That is.. once I adjusted to the spacial differences with driving on the left side of the road and the right side of the car.

The glimpse of got of Cardiff was brief that night but the hotel was splendid and the company even better.

Day 6 – Cardiff to Much Wenlock

Carrying on with the Doctor Who theme of the trip Jess arranged for the four of us to have a private guided Doctor Who tour of Cardiff – which worked out fabulously for me since it also allowed me to see some of the major sites of Cardiff, and the surrounding area, in the process.

We started by walking around Cardiff. Our guide pointed out little areas that had been used in the television show and I was floored by the little nuances that they did on the show to portray Cardiff as London in many scenes.

We traveled to Llandaff to visit the Cathedral and village green – and I appreciated the tour we had of the Cathedral aside from it’s cameo in the show. It was set low in a valley so that the top of the Cathedral could not be seen from the water and identified as a target. I absolutely loved the structure and the little details all along the building.

Then we visited St Fagans – which, from the description in the tour book, I had initially thought would be similar to Old Sturbridge Village here in Massachusetts. It was different and represented so much more than what I’ve seen in the US. The buildings were each unique and represented a different period in Welsh history and I really loved the set up of it all.

After returning to Cardiff and visiting St John the Baptist City Parish Church we stopped for lunch at a Tapas restaurant that is a favorite of Karen Gillan, from the show. And once again we were off.

This time we were driving north towards Much Wenlock with a stop at Raglan Castle along the way. Four years ago I’d visited Chepstow Castle in Wales and while there I had picked up a brochure for a neighboring castle called Raglan Castle. Since then I’ve been waiting and wanting to visit it – this was the perfect time to do so.

I experienced, much to my dismay, my first hedgerow along the way. In retrospect this one was the least terrifying of the hedge rows but since it was my first I was definitely having a minor freak out. Later in the day we’d come across another one just before our destination – and ended up coming face to face with an oversized tractor load that took up the entire road. After driving the car literally into the hedge we were missed by the tractor with barely two inches to spare.

Raglan Castle was rebuilt in the seventeenth century but a castle had stood on that location since the twelfth century. It was truly a magnificent sight and ruin to explore and tour. The view of the country side was impressive, as was the secondary castle within the castle, the live moat, among other interesting quirks.

After we pried ourselves away from Raglan Castle we finished the trip north to Much Wenlock where we met with our friends for the 10th Anniversary party we’d all traveled to the UK to attend.

Day 7 – Anniversary Party

It was awesome – enough said. A weekend in the countryside with a group of friends – complete with lawn games, wood chopping, bon fires and home brew deliciousness.

Day 8 – Much Wenlock to London

After leaving the Anniversary party we trekked back to London to return the car and eventually made our way out to dinner at a local Indian restaurant (across the street from my old flat). I was able to reflect upon a week of travels with the company of three good friends. It was quite the trip!

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