Britain Part 1

Thursday March 25: London Heathrow and Oxford

After collecting our luggage and going through customs, the search was on for the bus to take us to Oxford. We arrived at Terminal 4, where the coach station and information office were deserted at such a rediculous hour in the morning. We took the free Heathrow Express train to terminal 1, and then had a 10 minute walk to Heathrow Central Bus Station. Again the information office was deserted, but we found our stand using the signs.

The Oxford Express bus arrived around 06:00; 10 minutes late due to roadworks near Gatwick. We paid £14 each to get to Oxford, a surprisingly fast journey of 40 minutes. Then we took a taxi to our hotel, the Best Western Linton Lodge, and pleasingly we were able to check-in despite the early hour. Thanks Best Western! Our first priority was to freshen up, and we both felt much better after a nice hot shower.

We walked into the city centre, and walked around a bit. The weather was making life a little miserable, with a mixture of heavy cloud, showers, bright sunshine (very brief) and hail, and around 6°C. We ate some food, and took a hop on/hop off tour, but did not hop. There was plenty of time to see the sights in detail later. My impression of Oxford is of a bustling small town, with heaps of cyclists, buses, and pedestrians. As a whole it's impressive, but with few stand-out attractions.

We walked down to the bus station to pick up our bus tickets for our journey to York in two days' time. It was not as easy as it should have been. The National Express office seemed to have no record of the tickets whatsoever, it appears they were lost. After half an hour, we came back and the tickets were reissued for us. Advice: Pick up bus and train tickets before the day of travel to avoid trouble.

We had the first pub lunch of our trip at the White Horse, and it was here that I decided on the 50 beers challenge. I didn't quite make it to my goal, but it was fun trying. After lunch we climbed Carfax Tower for an impressive view of Oxford. Although the tower looks quite small, it's good for appreciating the architecture and the size of the town. Climbing it cost us £1.40 each.

Keble College
Keble College
Oxford Skyline
Oxford Skyline

We walked back to the hotel, and had an afternoon nap (remember we arrived in Heathrow very early!). Later we weren't very hungry, but we went out for a pub meal at the Gardeners Arms, a great little pub. Then we walked back to the hotel, and slept.

Friday March 26: Oxford

We got out of bed when the fire alarm went off. Luckily we were awake already at this stage, but it was still not appreciated. (Advice: When evacuating a building in a cold climate, shoes are a good idea.)

We had a good full buffet breakfast, then left the hotel at 09:30 to walk into the city centre. This time we walked more around the backstreets, which seemed to us to have far more to offer than the main streets. Early in the day we walked towards the Bodleian Library, looking first around the nearby lanes. We saw Oxford's Bridge of Sighs (modelled on the one in Venice, but not particularly similar), and the little laneways around the colleges. There wasn't much to see at the Bodleian Library apart from the shop, which has lots of "Silence Please" memorabilia. We purchased a book about Oxford's gargoyles. We walked up to Magdalen College, and I took a photo of the bishop gargoyle I'd spotted on the previous day's tour. We also had a look at the Botanic Gardens, which were a bit average, and certainly not worth the £2.50 each entry fee.

Tom Tower, Christ Church College
Christ Church College
Bridge of Sighs
Bridge of Sighs
Bridge of Sighs
Bridge of Sighs
Bodleian Library
Bodleian Library
Radcliffe Camera
Radcliffe Camera
Bishop Gargoyle
Bishop Gargoyle

We had another pub lunch, this time at O'Neills. In the afternoon, we walked back to Magdalen College and went inside. There are lots of gargoyles, statues, and impressive buildings, with lawns that can't be walked upon. Visiting a college in Oxford is an excellent thing to do.

Magdalen College
Magdalen College

We had dinner at the Gardeners Arms again, then headed back to the hotel.

Saturday March 27: Oxford and York

We spent most of the day travelling. The day started well with a big buffet breakfast, after which we walked to the bus station in light drizzle. Naturally it was dry for the whole time we were travelling, just not for our brief walk. It seems we underestimated the time it would take to walk to the bus station, because we arrived with only five minutes to spare. We had to queue before getting on the bus, though there was no obvious reason why we couldn't just get on.

We left Oxford at 10:50 and went through Stratford on the way to Birmingham. From what we saw, Birmingham is a large and unattractive city. The previous day we had bought some pizza bread and eccles cake from a supermarket, and we ate it for lunch in Birmingham Coach Station. I like eccles cake.

The wait in Birmingham was about 45 minutes, and then it was onto another National Express coach to York. We stopped at some motorway services once on the way, and arrived in York at 16:45.

We walked around for about 15 minutes before we found the Ramada Encore because the map we had was slightly misleading, so we had gone the wrong way down Micklegate. It didn't help that we didn't have a street number.

We met a school friend in the evening for dinner, and it was good to catch up. Initially we looked for an Italian place to eat, but we gave up after three were full and went to the Orgasmic bar. I had some skewer stick things to eat, and they weren't very good. Afterwards we moved on to the Kings Arms pub next to the River Ouse. It was quite crowded, so we foolishly drank our drinks outside. It was very cold.

Sunday March 28: York

The day started with an excellent continental breakfast at the hotel. Then we started to see the sites of York by following the general direction of the walk recommended in Lonely Planet Western Europe. On the way we found St Mary's Abbey by accident, and it is well worth a visit. It's not very well signed and there's very little information around, to the extent that we had trouble working out what it was called. A bit of googling shows that it was a Benedictine church founded in 1088. The abbey has a connection to the legend of Robin Hood, and was eventually closed in 1539 by order of the crown. We didn't know any of that at the time, all we knew was that the old ruins with a hint of sun and blue sky were very photogenic.

St Mary's Abbey
St Mary's Abbey
St Mary's Abbey
St Mary's Abbey

Not long afterwards, the sun and blue sky went away for a few hours and it got quite cold. We continued walking, and saw the outside of York Minster. It's a huge building, intricately detailed, that dominates the skyline of York. It looks a bit gloomy in the photos we took, so it's lucky we came back later when the sun was out. We walked on around the top of the city walls around to Monk Bar. We saw The Shambles, a narrow street with old buildings that lean in towards the middle. When they were build, taxes were based on the amount of land that the building occupied, so having a smaller ground floor was the tax minimisation strategy of its time.

York Minster
York Minster
York Minster
York Minster
The Shambles
The Shambles

Our walk continued following Lonely Planet's recommended route, but unfortunately it got a bit boring. We walked across the city to another part of the wall, and then saw Clifford's Tower. It was nothing exciting. Happily that was the end of the walk, so we had a look at the nearby Jorvik Viking Centre, which celebrates York's viking origins. Inside was a ride around a reconstruction of viking York - "smells and all", followed by some more traditional exhibits. It was ok, but it seems to be trying too hard. If you're on a budget, you would be better off saving your money to spend elsewhere (admission costs £7.20 for adults).

We had an excellent and inexpensive lunch from a nearby butcher, a roast meat roll (I chose turkey with stuffing). Then it was time to see the inside of York Minster. It's huge! Big stained glass windows and elaborate architecture throughout. Definitely the highlight of our time in York, and possibly the most interesting church we visited throughout our trip. There's a very interesting audio tour of the undercroft. It explains the three buildings that have been on the site (a Roman legion headquarters, a Norman cathedral, and the present structure), plus the excavations on the site and how the present structure is being protected.

Having spent a long time out and about, we headed back to the hotel for a little rest, and naturally the sun came out and stayed out once we were inside. Later we went out again and headed back towards the Minster for more photos with sun and blue sky. I think it was worthwhile.

The City Walls
No Dogs Allowed on the City Walls
York Minster
York Minster

We walked around a while looking for dinner. My fiancée led us astray by holding the map upside down, which seems like a very stereotypical thing to do but not something I would normally expect of her. We ended up eating a decent meal at the Punch Bowl pub. Then it was time for our evening entertainment - a ghost walking tour. We chose the Ghost Trail of York tour leaving from outside the Minster, but there are several others that are probably equally good. The tour costs a very reasonable £3 each. We walked around the Minster, the Shambles, the Treasurer's House and surrounding areas listening to enjoyable tales of the local ghosts. The guide was dressed the part with a top-hat, cane, and long coat. I thoroughly recommend these walks for an entertaining and educational evening.

Monday March 29: York and Edinburgh

The day started the same as the previous day, with an excellent continental breakfast at the hotel with plenty of croissants and pastries. We checked out of the hotel and walked down to the National Railway Musuem. I found it quite interesting, and my fiancée survived the visit so it can't have been too bad. Admission was free. We walked around the city a bit, and bought lunch from a bakery for the bargain price of £2.77 for both of us. After lunch we collected our suitcases from the hotel and walked to the train station. The train left a little late, and was overheated but otherwise fine.

The journey to Edinburgh took 2 hrs 27 mins. Upon our arrival we had an unenjoyable walk to the James Court Apartments. The uphill bits were not at all fun with suitcases. But once we arrived it was all worthwhile. The location on the Royal Mile in excellent, as were the facilities.

We walked up to Edinburgh Castle (which took all of five minutes) then back down the Royal Mile. We looked at plenty of souvenir shops and went into an old church named Tron Kirk. The floor of the church has been excavated to reveal houses from the 1700s. There are interesting descriptions of how people lived back then, and entry is free. We picked up some fish and chips for dinner on the way back to the apartment, then read books and wrote some email.

Tuesday March 30: Edinburgh

A full day in Edinburgh today. We had a simple breakfast of toast and orange juice, since that was provided with our room, then walked up to Edinburgh Castle at around 09:45. It took us until 11:30 to see everything we wanted to see. The castle provides commanding views of its surroundings, and has plenty of cannons for shooting at approaching enemies. There was a strong contrast between different parts of the castle that were built at different times throughout its history, and unlike other castles I've seen this one was quite spread out and consists of lots of different buildings. Admission cost £9.50 each.

Edinburgh Castle
Edinburgh Castle
Edinburgh Castle Silhouette
Edinburgh Castle Silhouette

We walked down the Royal Mile stopping on the way for lunch at The Royal Mile pub. I did the touristy thing and had "haggis with neeps and tatties" (mashed turnips and mashed potatoes). The haggis was quite tasty - it's really just mince with some extra flavour and richness. We had a look in St Giles' Cathedral, which wasn't very interesting.

At the end of the Royal Mile is the Palace of Holyroodhouse, the Queen's official residence in Scotland. It looks reasonably impressive from the outside, but going inside shows the opulence of the place. The audio tour explains all the features of the palace. There are plenty of paintings and tapestries throughout, but they didn't impress me much.

Palace of Holyroodhouse
Palace of Holyroodhouse

We went for a walk up Caton Hill for a view of the city, then down towards Princes Street and the train station. We thought about visiting Edinburgh Dungeon, but really couldn't bo bothered - it was expensive and didn't look very interesting. So we headed back to the apartment for half an hour, then walked up to the castle again to take more photos (since the sun had finally come out).

Near the castle on the Royal Mile is the Scotch Whisky Heritage Centre. A reasonable hour was given to describing all about Scotch Whisky (£7.45 each), but by the time the tour finished the bar was shut. I think that it is particularly poor form to close the bar before the last tour ends. So if you want to do the tour, make sure you don't leave it too late in the day. I was particularly intrigued by the label of a Scotch called "Pig's Nose" - renowned in Gloucestershire as being as smooth as a pig's snout.

We ate dinner at Biddy McGuire's pub, a short walk from the apartment on Grassmarket. It was good value thanks to a 2 for £8 offer they had running.

Edinburgh was a bit of a strange place overall. Apart from the obvious tourist attractions of Edinburgh Castle and Holyroodhouse, we struggled a bit to find things to do. Perhaps we just needed to do more research, or maybe some sort of tour would have been a good investment.

Wednesday March 31: Edinburgh to Dublin

Another day of travel as we left Britain temporarily for a quick visit to Ireland. We left the apartments at around 09:00, walked to the station (thankfully it was mostly downhill) and took one of the frequent double decker buses to the airport. The bus costs £3 each, (strangely more than our airfare across to Dublin), and takes 25 minutes to get to the airport. We checked in early, and had no problems with Ryanair's 15kg luggage allowance since our bags had miraculously decreased in weight by about 3.5kg since we left home.

We pushed back five minutes early in our plane that was a flying Hertz Rent-a-car advertisement. It was the steepest ascent I've ever seen, it felt like 45 degrees at the time. With a flight time of only around 40 minutes, it wasn't long before we started our somewhat bumpy descent through the heavy cloud into Dublin.

The story continues in Ireland.
Back to the Europe 2004 index.