The Royal Mile in Edinburgh at 6:30am.
Wales & England
We are already 2 weeks (¼) into our European excursion anf having a great time. But let’s not get too ahead of ourselves. It began the (very early) morning of Saturday 5 May 2012, when we dragged ourselves out of our Budget Backpackers 4 bed dorm for the last time with only our 70 litre backpacks. We walked the short distance to Waverley Train Station in Edinburgh and said goodbye to the city that had been our home for more than a year. It was bittersweet because Edinburgh had become so familiar to us; it was like home but we were thrilled to be donning our backpacks again and on the road to discover new adventures. The adventure began with a 5 hour train journey to London where we hired a car from Heathrow airport to drive around the country for a week.
We started with the collegial city of Oxford, once we could actually find our way out of the Greater London Area that is (it’s not as easy as it looks on a map). When we arrived we found an interesting Bed & Breakfast to stay at. Judging by the pictures on the wall,
One of many places where scenes from Harry Potter were shot.
the owner was an avid rock climber. He kind of looked like a Swiss mountain man with his leather hiking boots, red woollen jumper and red hat (Dan's was pretty sure it was Steve Martin; but he didn't smile so it was hard to tell). That evening we took a walk around the city. We didn’t really know what we were seeing so we decided that it would be well worth it to find a free walking tour the following day to understand the city a bit better. The streets are winding and you can easily get lost, like in many European cities. There were a lot of young people (presumably students) walking around in fancy dress so there must have been some big university event happening that night. We managed to find the Turf Tavern that is in an unassuming alley off the road that has the replica Bridge of Sighs. The Turf Tavern is a famous student bar in the heart of the city that used to be under the old city wall so it is ridiculously tiny; there was a really tall guy standing at the bar who had to duck his head the entire time he
A great author's inspriation
The lion on the door who may have inspired the character Aslan for C S Lewis
was in the bar because the ceiling as so low and Dan had to watch out for the rafters. Most of the bar’s space is made up of picnic tables and chairs and umbrellas on the patio (but why you’d want to sit outside in January in Oxford is beyond me). We enjoyed a drink there and then got lost trying to find our way back to our B & B (not because we didn’t know where it was but because we took the back way out of the alley which took us to a new, more residential part of town we’d never seen before). The night ended back at the B & B (thankfully) with champagne Ashley received as a parting gift from work to celebrate being on the road again.
The following day we took a walking tour of Oxford with Footprints and a guide called Chris, who was very knowledgeable and had great stories about the city. We learned about the history of Oxford and how it grew to be such an important education oriented city, with the formation of monasteries in the area hundreds of years earlier. We also learned about some of the colleges:
Into the Brecon Beacon Mountains. Don't worry, we were home before dark.
like All Souls, which is a post-graduate college that you can’t apply to; you have to be invited to study there. There is also Christchurch College which was used for numerous scenes in Harry Potter. We also learned that Oxford was home to such important literary figures as J R R Tolkein, C S Lewis and Lewis Carol, who based Alice in Wonderland on a girl called Alice who went to his church. And we saw C S Lewis’ house which has a lion (Aslan) on the door and a lamp post out front, which is the first thing the kids see as they stumble into Narnia. You can just wander around Oxford all day looking up at the architecture in awe, even if it’s not something you’d normally be interested in. After the tour ended, we went to Blackwell, which is a large British bookstore chain that was established in Oxford by the Blackwell family. They started with no more than 12 ft2 and have expanded to 3 different stores on the same block now. We went to the store to see the Norrington Library which is a huge basement level library is beneath Trinity College. It was enormous
Getting a taste
Our first walk along the Pembrokeshire Coastal path the first night we arrived.
and a must see for anyone visiting Oxford who loves being around books.
Alas, as much as we loved Oxford, it was time to get on the road once again. This time we were headed to Wales. Our old friend Jan, from Inverness was staying in Swansea at the time and we wanted to make sure to see her since it had been over a year since we’d all left Inverness. I thought it’d be best to stay somewhere in the Brecon Beacon Mountains, because apparently, there is no hostel in Swansea itself, and the mountains are close enough that we could drive into the city easily the next day. As we were driving in that general direction, and well after we passed the English-Welsh border, we began to see signs for home-grown cider. We wanted to check it out so we were careful to keep an eye out for all the signs which led us off the main road and down a meandering, single track road into the middle of nowhere. Somewhere along the way Ashley noticed a sign that said the shop was only open until 5pm , and it was already 4:55pm and it seemed to
Scenery for the day
What we got to look at all day long during our walk along the Pembrokeshire coastal walk.
take ages to get to the shop. We got there with moments to spare but the gentlemen selling his wares (Ty Gwyn cider) was happy to see us, as was his black lab. We chatted a bit and learned that his family’s cider was award winning and getting attention from some top chefs in the UK, who were beginning to use it in their cooking. Well, now we’re interested in trying to use cider in our cooking too. It’s a thought that just never occurred to us. Anyways, we learned about the cider and sampled the two different types, medium and medium dry. We both preferred the medium but bought two bottles of each on the spot. Lesson to us: if there is ever a sign on the side of the road selling something we might be interested in, check it out. It could be a great find that you can’t get anywhere else and would never have known about otherwise. Continuing on in our story, we finally got back onto the main road toward the town of Brecon. When we arrived we parked the car to wander around and look for the hostel we just assumed would be there.
Near the Abereiddy Beach, the blue lagoon is a former mine which was blown up when it was closed. Sea water flooded in but now it's so protected it stays this brilliant turquoise colour.
Wrong assumption; there was no hostel but we eventually found a YHA in the middle of nowhere that had space. Although, note to self, try to avoid staying in a YHA whenever possible. Don’t get me wrong, they are good hostels. They’re clean, family friendly and usually very well maintained. But this all comes at a price. The same price, in fact as a regular B & B but without the breakfast. So why pay the same for a room with shared bathroom facilities and no breakfast? We went for a walk in the hills that evening just to unwind. The path we found was right off a road but once you walked 2 or 3 minutes it was unbelievably serene.
Monday morning we drove down to Swansea to met Jan, our Kiwi friend from Inverness. She lives right beside the marina so we met her at the Pumphouse (a pub), we went for a walk on the beach, and then went back to the Pumphouse and enjoyed a drink and snacks. It was so good to catch up with Jan. She’s one of those people who gets along with everyone and she always has great stories about her
Eating my Cornish Pastie.
travels. She recommended we go to Pembrokeshire on the southwest coast because we told her we wanted to do some hiking. Pembrokeshire has a coastal path that runs right up the Welsh coast, and stay at the Old School Hostel in Trefin (pronounced Treveen; oh those crazy Welsh and their pronunciations). So, that’s where we went and we were so impressed!!! We’ve stayed in really good hostels in the past but they all had an air of sterility and still felt like hostels. The Old School Hostel felt like home. Each room was individually decorated; it was small, the kitchen had everything you need and more; the common room felt like our living room (or at least what our living room would feel like if we had one); and Chris and Sue (the owners) were so helpful. I encourage anyone wouldn’t ordinarily stay in a hostel to try The Old School if you’re ever in Pembrokshire. The Old School was also the most eco-friendly hostel we've ever seen. It had ten different recycling bins, and one for waste, solar heated water, a discount for not arriving with a vehicle. You could tell that a lot of extra effort went into
The remains of one of the nine circular houses at Chysauster Ancient Village.
making it a sustainable business. It is well worth the travel to get out to Trefin. That evening we took a wee walk along the coast path to get a feel for the town and the surrounding countryside. And it was stunning. We were literally walking along the cliff side facing the ocean. That decided it, we had to do more of the coastal path the following day.
And that’s just what we did. We got up (somewhat) bright and early; had a hearty breakfast and packed a lunch for the day ahead. There are no words to describe a walk like that. We were in awe the whole time because all you could see into the horizon was the ocean. There were lots of ups and downs but in general that part of the path wasn’t too strenuous because the uphills never lasted very long. We'd planned to do a short 2 hr loop from Trefin to Porthgain, but it was only another couple hours to Abereiddy, so why not keep going?? We could always catch the bus back. We could have followed the path along the coast all the way to the town of St David, but
St Michael's Mount as the tide went out.
we were getting tired and opted to cut inland and walked on some of the many public footpaths to a town we could see instead. Once we got off the coastal path we didn’t really know where we were or if we were even heading in the right direction but we managed to make it to St David’s somehow. We got an ice cream for all our hard work and waited for the bus back to Trefin (the last of three a day). And we may have treated ourselves once again to an afternoon tea at the local Mill Café in Trefin. It is a cute little café in the middle of town, that has lots of original paintings for sale and it’s run by a young local guy. Dan had to suffice with welsh cakes (!!! yes several!!!) with his tea because there was only one scone left but Ashley had the proper cream tea. Now that is the best scone Ashley has ever tasted (apart from her/her mom’s own homemade scones of course). Everything was so nice we returned the next morning for breakfast, where Dan tried the Welsh breakfast, consisting of eggs, sausage, laver bread (seaweed mixed
The bridge at Avon Gorge that we is a must-see in Bristol.
with oats) and cockles (some sort of sea creature which we’re pretty sure is always pickled). It was certainly an interesting breakfast.
That day saw a long drive ahead of us. In retrospect we should’ve stayed in Wales for the rest of our trip. We really didn’t have time to drive down to Cornwall, but that’s exactly what we did because Ashley really wanted to go to the beach her Nana grew up on during the war. Like I said, the drive ended up taking waaaaaaaay longer than we anticipated. It looked like maybe 4 or 5 hours but it was more like 8. No wonder Chris thought we were crazy for driving that far in one day. The drive was pretty uneventful, other than driving over the Severn bridge (the huge bridge that connect Wales and Somerset, and a couple rest stops on the road to gas up and stretch our legs. We found a place to stay in Penzance and decided to explore the Cornish peninsula while we were there.
Cornland (well, 'wall' really)
So, the next morning we really did get up bright and early and went for a run on the promenade, and went
Chapel Porth Beach
into town to post some last minute items home and found a market to buy some fresh bread. We also decided to try the local fare: Cornish pasties, which are essentially meat and potatoes wrapped in dough. There is always a lot of dough on the bottom because they were created for miners who had dirty hands. They could hold onto the heavy dough end and eat the rest without getting making the whole pastie dirty. We ended up driving to an ancient village called Chysauster, where the remains of nine house foundations, dating from Roman times, are still evident. There really isn’t much there so you have to imagine what the houses would have looked like and what people’s lives would have been like in those times. All the houses were round and were based around a central, open courtyard, with covered rooms surrounding it. It was a neat site to see and not too expensive. The next stop on our tour of the Cornish coast was St Michael’s Mount, which is a tidal island with a castle just off the coast from Marazion. The pictures made it look like there was a town on the island so we thought we’d walk out to the island in low tide and wander around the town. The tide was still going out and the path was still covered when we got there so we walked around along the beach and into town. There were lots of people kite surfing in the water which looked like a blast but also very very very cold! The day was blustery and cold so we found a café called Delicious to sit and have some soup, spicy lentil and butternut squash. It was just the pick me up we needed. It warmed our insides and readied us for the walk out to the mount. It turned out that there really wasn’t much of anything on the island besides the castle and the gardens, which we were feeling too cheap to pay for so we wandered around the little bit that we could and then crossed back over to firm ground before the tide came back and covered up the path. It was on to Land’s End for us. We followed the coast alll the way there and passed through many little town, our favorite of which was Mousehole. Mousehole looked like a great wee town and we'll definatly want to head back net time were in Cornwall. We finally made to lands end which is supposed to be the most westerly point in the UK, but we heard from other people that it’s actually not; it’s just the most famous. And they’ve really marketed themselves well, or not so well depending on your perspective. The scenery is beautiful if you can get past the tourist traps in the way. All in all, a trip to Land’s End may sound necessary but it’s not. You can get just as beautiful scenery all along the Cornish coast. Although that was all we planned for the day we didn’t feel finished yet so we decided we needed a cream tea. We drove to St Just where we found a cute café that had cream tea on the menu. It was just what we needed to finish off the day.
Friday was another big driving day. We had to get to Bristol to meet James who we met working at BML in 2005. But first we drove toward St Agnes to get to Chapel Porth Beach, which is the beach Ashley’s Nana was evacuated to during the war. We found the house she lived in at the top of the hill (took pictures as stealthily as possible so the residents wouldn’t think I was trying to case the joint) and continued down the steep road Nana used to walk. The beach is beautiful and the water is clear green. The tide was in so it was quite small but just imagine a small cove with steep cliffs on either side (that she used to climb on) and turquoise water for as far as the eye could see. Then it was off to Bristol. When we got there we walked around the harbour area which looks like it was recently refurbished. There is a great pedestrian walkway and there are loads of pubs/restaurants on the waterfront. Once we met James we went to the Watershed for a couple drinks and dinner. It was great to catch up and weird to think that it’s been seven years since we saw him. Then we proceeded to walk to Clifton where James lives. He showed us THE bridge. In short, it’s a big bridge across Avon Gorge. After oohing and awwwing we proceeded to the Mall for yet more drinks. But we couldn’t go too crazy because we still had a 3 hour drive to London ahead of us early Saturday morning. We met some of James’ friends and hung out at the pub until closing. We managed to find our way back to downtown Bristol thanks to Dan’s brilliant navigational skills and that was us for the night.
Saturday morning saw us getting up ridiculously early to get on the road to London. We were going to stop at Avebury on the way but there were huge delays so we threw in the towel and hopefully we’ll get to see it another day. We made it to London, turned in our car, took the tube back to the city and waited (not so patiently) for our train to Paris but that’s another story... Tips:
• Driving around the UK always takes longer than you think it should so don’t overextend yourself. Stay put for a few nights in one place.
• Try to avoid staying in YHA hostels if you want value for your money or character
• Always follow impromptu road signs for things or sites of interest
• Try to support the local economy if you can, there always friendly and appreciative
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