A Travellerspoint blog

UK & EUROPE 2009: PART 1

England, Wales & Scotland

Best of Britain tour

23 - 24 April 2009

At Canberra Airport I was ticketed right through to London and I was very happy learn that Qantas had upgraded me to premium economy for the final and longest leg from Bangkok to London. The entire trip from Canberra to Sydney to Bangkok to London took over 27 hours. After far too many hours of watching movies, eating and trying to sleep, I arrived in London at 7am on 24 April feeling extremely tired. It took an hour to get through immigration at Heathrow, however I walked straight through customs, then found the dot2dot transfer desk and waited half an hour for the transfer van to arrive. The transfer driver didn’t seem to know where he was going but eventually, with the help of his maps and GPS, I was dropped off at my hotel after an hour of driving around London.

I checked in at the Grosvenor hotel. The young woman seemed really put out that she had to do her job and said she had a ‘special’ room for me ... I knew from her tone that this wasn’t going to be good. After having a look at the tiny run down room with it’s peeling wallpaper, blinds that didn’t close and a tiny bathroom, I immediately went back to the front desk and asked for a different room. The snooty girl was gone and a young man changed my room to a better one, although it was still not of a standard that I would expect for the amount of money I had paid. However, my reason for choosing this particular hotel was the good central location.

Despite feeling extremely tired I decided to walk off the jet lag. I checked out the location of the Trafalgar office, which was about a 5 minute walk away, as I had to be there for the start of my tour at 7.30am on the 26 April. I then walked down Victoria St and saw Westminster Cathedral and further on was Westminster Abbey, the Houses of Parliament, Clock Tower and the London Eye. This area was packed with tourists so I joined the throng and took lots of photos. Across from the Houses of Parliament was a Sri Lankan protest and a large police presence - just to add to the chaos in this area. From Westminster Bridge I walked back along Birdcage Walk, Horse Guards Road and the Mall until I arrived at Buckingham Palace. The gardens around the palace were beautiful ... full of colourful spring flowers.

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After taking photos near the Palace I headed back to the hotel as I was feeling very weary. Totally exhausted I was in bed and asleep at 7pm.

The weather in London was beautiful today, bright and sunny and I got quite warm while walking around. The Londoners were out in force soaking up the sunshine, stripping off their shirts and lying back on the striped deckchairs in London’s public parks.

London: 25 April 2009

I woke up at 2am and couldn’t get back to sleep so at 3am I got up and started typing up my diary in my netbook - I had every intention of doing this every day but soon found there was no time during the tour.

The day started off rainy and then became very changeable, it was intermittently rainy/dry/sunny/cool/windy, and this set the weather pattern for the next couple of weeks. Today I started walking around 8.30 and first walked to Harrods, which was supposed to be open at 9am according to my Lonely Planet guide, but they got it wrong and the store didn’t open until 10am. I decided not to wait for opening and started the long walk to Trafalgar Square, where I spent 2 hours exploring the artworks at the National Gallery. After grabbing a sandwich and drink at the gallery I walked back past Buckingham Place on the way to Hyde Park. There was a lot of activity around the palace today. Workmen were very busy setting up traffic barriers, temporary seating stands and porta loos, and there were outside broadcast vans preparing for the London marathon to be run the following day.

I walked and walked for a long time, the entire length of Hyde Park and then into Kensington Palace gardens. The gardens at the palace were full of beautiful spring flowers.

At 3.30pm I met a friend for afternoon tea at the Orangerie at Kensington Palace. My friend has been working in London for over a year and it was wonderful to catch up with her. The Orangerie is a lovely, very classy, place to have a formal English afternoon tea. We had cucumber and cream cheese sandwiches, a scone with jam and cream, and coffee. This was followed by chocolate cake but by that stage we were both too full to enjoy the cake. For anyone wanting to enjoy the Orangerie experience, be prepared to wait - there was quite a long line and about a 40 minute wait to get in for afternoon tea.

My friend and I walked to Hyde Park Corner, where we said goodbye and I then walked back to the hotel arriving at around 7pm. Back at the hotel I grabbed my netbook and went to McDonalds in Victoria St to use the free internet. It had been a long day and my whole body was rebelling against the amount of exercise I’d done. I repacked my bag in preparation for the start of my tour tomorrow morning and went to bed around 10.45pm.

Day 1: 26 April 2009

I woke up at 2am again and couldn’t get back to sleep. After breakfast I walked the short distance to the Trafalgar office to join the Best of Britain tour. There was only one other person joining the tour from this location - Diane, who was also from Canberra. The coach arrived at 8am after picking up everyone else. There was only 39 people on the tour, so plenty of spare seats. The tour was made up of people of all ages, with a few New Zealanders, South Africans, Canadians and Americans and all the rest (the large majority) were Australians.

The day started out a bit overcast and we had a few sunny periods as we drove towards the Salisbury Plain. The first stop was Stonehenge, where we had about an hour to walk around and listen to the commentary on the audio guide, take photos, and visit the souvenir shop. I had visited Stonehenge on my last trip to England in 2006 and it was one of my favourite places so I was happy to be there again. Last time I was there it was a bleak, cold and windy day and the weather was much the same again today. Somehow the bleak weather seems to suit Stonehenge and adds to the atmosphere of this incredible place.

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The next stop was Salisbury, where we took some photos of the outside of Salisbury Cathedral. It was Sunday so we couldn’t go inside the Cathedral. We than had about one and a half hours to explore the town and have lunch. I joined Diane and we had lunch at a café and wandered around. In the town square there was a celebration for St George’s Day.

Our afternoon stop was at a roadside truck stop and then we were on our way to Plymouth. Along the way the weather worsened and the rain really came down. By the time we reached Plymouth it was very grey, wet and cold. We pulled up at the harbour but it was too wet to take any photos and I stayed on the coach while Michael was trying to find out if the harbour cruise would go ahead. Through the rain I could vaguely make out the Mayflower steps where the pilgrims set sail in 1620. Eventually the rain eased and those doing the cruise departed. I had decided not to do this cruise and went to the hotel.

This was a fairly quiet day on the coach, however from past tour experience I knew that once people got to know each other each day would become a bit more rowdy.

We stayed at the Jurys Inn Hotel in Plymouth. The hotel was not luxurious but neat and clean. We had a welcome drink at 7pm followed by dinner at 7.30pm. There was some confusion over our dinner arrangements and the hotel didn’t seem ready to cater for our dinner. They had a large Austrian group staying at the hotel and our group had been relegated to eat in a conference room. The service was very poor and the food was bland and uninteresting.

I think the long flights, time difference and a couple of busy days really caught up with me during the afternoon as I was feeling very tired and had a terrible headache. I went to bed at 10.30pm hoping I’d feel better the next day.

Day 2: 27 April 2009

Finally, I had a decent night’s sleep and woke up feeling much better. We were again relegated to the conference room for breakfast.

At 8am the weather was still dark, gloomy and very wet as we headed towards St Ives. St Ives was formerly a fishing village but is now better known as a holiday destination and a popular area for artists, with a branch of London’s Tate Gallery.

The coach couldn't enter St Ives because of the steep narrow streets so we had to stop in a parking area at the top of a very steep walking track down to the village. The heavy rain had eased, and finally stopped in time for our walk to the village. Along with Linda and Diane, I headed down the steep path and stopped at St Ives Parish Church to see the Madonna and child statue in the Lady Chapel. This is a beautiful white marble statue by artist Barbara Hepworth, created as a memorial to her son who died in military service in the 1950s.

We stopped to take photos along the waterfront and light rain began to fall so we headed for a café and some warming vegetable soup. Then we decided it was time to head back and find the little bus to take us up the hill, and after a few wrong turns we finally found the bus and were relieved to see others from our group also waiting there. After a winding trip up the hill, the driver stopped near the top for us to take some quick photos. We just made it back before the 12.00pm deadline, with about a minute to spare.

After a very short drive the next stop was near St Michael’s Mount, this is a small island connected to the mainland by a causeway that is only accessible at low tide. We then drove through Penzance and headed back towards Plymouth.

On the way back we stopped for a cream tea. This was at the Notter Bridge Inn, which was in a lovely country setting alongside a running stream. We were served sandwiches and scones (2 each) with jam and cream, and tea. Then they bought out a couple of huge cakes. I was so glad I wasn’t doing the optional dinner that night because I didn’t feel like ever eating again!

Later Diane and I went for a short walk and then had a drink at The Old Friary pub, which is down an alleyway beside the hotel. I then spent the evening catching up on some emails, had an apple for dinner and went to bed around 10.30pm.

Day 3: 28 April 2009

Breakfast was at 7am and we were allowed to eat in the dining room today. We had an 8am start and our first stop was at the Glastonbury Abbey ruins. We were first taken to the Abbots’s Kitchen, which is the only building that remains intact. The staff were dressed in period costume and they gave us a talk about life working in the kitchen. The Abbey ruins date from 1184 to 1539. The Abbey was destroyed under the rule of Henry VIII and the stones were gradually used for other buildings. There is a legend that King Arthur and Queen Guinevere are buried in the Abbey grounds. I really enjoyed wandering around the ruins and had time to look through the gift shop and around the street stalls before departure.

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Following a quick photo stop at the beautiful Wells Cathedral we then drove on to Bath for our lunch break, stopping for photos of the Georgian houses in the Royal Crescent before visiting the Roman Baths. The Roman Baths is a World Heritage site and is built on Britain’s only hot springs. I had already been to the Baths before so just did a quick tour through and Diane and I decided to go to a pub for lunch. We chose the Rat and Parrot and this was a big mistake as the service was extremely slow and we were beginning to wonder if our meal would come before we had to leave. The pub meal is not a good option when you only have a limited time to look around a town - on this occasion I was lucky that I’d already been to Bath before. We managed to get our meal and quickly eat it before heading back to the coach.

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After a short drive we travelled over the Severn Bridge and into Wales, arriving for our overnight stop in Cardiff around 5pm. In Cardiff we stayed at the Copthorne Hotel and I had a lovely big room with a huge window overlooking a pond with ducks.

I had a little rest before we left for the optional Cardiff Castle Banquet at 6.30pm. On the way to the castle we stopped to take photos outside the Millenium (Rugby) Stadium. We then drove past the animal wall (with animal statues) and arrived at Cardiff Castle. It was a great feeling walking through the entrance … we’re going to eat in a real castle! We went downstairs in the castle, into the dungeon, and into the bar, where we were all given a small glass of Mead. Then we went into the banquet hall and the fun began. The food was very good. We were told the proper Welsh names for all the food but I don’t remember them - we had Welsh sausage, lamb and vegetable soup, chicken and vegetables, and a Welsh biscuit cheesecake. A harpist played while we ate and then the entertainment began. There was lots of singing, with audience participation in some of the songs … thank goodness they didn’t pick me.

After plenty of good food and some very good Welsh singing, plus lots of laughter, the night was over and we were back at the hotel around 10.30.pm

Day 4: 29 April 2009

Another 8am departure for the visit to Cardiff Castle. We started with a guided tour of the rooms that were open to the public. The rooms were very ornate and grand.

My favourite room in the castle was the library, each bookshelf had carved animals on the ends and I found an Australian platypus. After our guided tour we had free time to wander around the grounds. First we went into the information centre where they have (behind glass) a section of recently excavated Roman wall. I climbed the stairs to the Norman Keep. The keep was constructed around 1091 and is surrounded by a moat. The climb up the stairs was worth it for the fantastic views across the castle grounds, and beyond the castle walls where the very modern construction of Millenium Stadium is quite a contrast to the castle buildings.

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The brochure I picked up in the information centre says “In the heart of the capital city is Cardiff Castle, a truly remarkable site with a history that spans over 2000 years. Roman soldiers slept here, noble knights held court here and the Bute family, with extraordinary wealth and vision, transformed the Castle into a romantic Victorian fantasy.” I could feel the history and I loved my visit to Cardiff Castle.

After leaving Cardiff we travelled through the Wye Valley to the ruins of Tintern Abbey. The Wye Valley is a very lush area with rolling green hills and lots of running streams. Along the way there were embankments covered in bluebells. The buildings on the Tintern Abbey site were erected over a 400 year period between 1136 and 1536. In the 1500s, under the reign of Henry VIII, the valuable articles from the Abbey were sent to the King’s treasury and the buildings were stripped for the lead and glass. Our stop at Tintern Abbey was only about 20 minutes ... just long enough for photos before proceeding to Ludlow for our lunch break.

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In Ludlow we had two hours to explore the town and this was plenty of time as the town is very small. While driving into town, Michael had pointed out the Feathers Hotel and Linda, Diane and I walked back to have a look and take some photos. Part of the hotel, including the façade was built in 1619 and the wooden motifs are the shape of ostrich feathers. We went inside and the friendly girl behind the desk asked if we would like to go upstairs and see the sitting room (used by James I, I think), so we climbed the stairs and found ourselves in a beautiful room with a huge fireplace and very ornate carvings on the wall over the fireplace and rich wood panels around the rooms. Yes, it did look fit for a king. I then grabbed a salad roll for lunch and wandered around taking photos of the Tudor buildings in the town. We left Ludlow at 2.30pm.

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The weather was bright and sunny today and as we travelled through the countryside we passed colourful fields with rapeseed (canola) crops, the bright yellow of these crops was in stark contrast to the browns and greens of the other fields and made interesting patterns.

When we arrived in Chester, Michael took the group for a walking tour through the town centre, which included the Chester Cathedral, Tudor buildings, the Queen Victoria Clock and a walk on the Roman walls. We were then given about an hour of free time in Chester. I walked to the Roman amphitheatre but it wasn’t very interesting as there is very little left, however the Roman Gardens were much nicer. The gardens are a lovely quiet green space just outside the old town wall, with the remains of Roman columns.

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Entering Liverpool around 6.30pm, we travelled through the tunnel under the Mersey River. In Liverpool we stayed at the Jurys Inn at Albert Dock, a restored dockland area. Next door to the hotel is a stadium and there was a big concert (Pink), with long lines of young people waiting to enter and a large police presence. After a very ordinary dinner at the hotel I made good use of the free internet before heading to bed around 11pm.

Day 5: 30 April 2009

After breakfast I walked the short distance to have a look at the Mersey River, which was very brown and murky. I hurried back inside as it was too cold for a leisurely stroll along the river. The day was grey, windy and very wet as we started out at 8.15am for the Liverpool sightseeing tour with a local guide. This tour may have been a bit more interesting if we had been able to see more, but unfortunately the rain continued to come down quite heavily. The highlight of the tour was a stop at Penny Lane to take photos and right on cue the rain stopped just long enough to enjoy this. We then drove down Penny Lane and the guide talked about the places that John Lennon and Paul McCartney frequented as boys and pointed out the landmarks along Penny Lane that are mentioned in the song. We left Liverpool at 10.15am and headed north towards the Lake District.

The next stop was for a cruise on Lake Windermere. Despite the rain, I still enjoyed the cruise. I quickly took some rain-spotted photos out on the cold, windy deck before going back under cover and enjoying a nice hot coffee. The scenery along the lake must be beautiful on a lovely sunny day.

We stopped at Grasmere for a lunch break. Grasmere is a pretty little village where William Wordsworth lived. Michael pointed out Wordsworth’s house, Dove Cottage, as we drove into the village. The rain was easing as we went into a café for some delicious hot soup, and when we came out the rain had stopped and the weather was very pleasant for a stroll around Grasmere. My first stop was the tiny gingerbread shop across the river - the shop was only big enough for two people to fit in. I found William Wordsworth’s grave, walked back across the little bridge and had a quick look in the shops before heading back to the coach.

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The scenery during the afternoon drive was wonderful. I really enjoyed watching the countryside go by, there was lots of lakes and green fields with sheep. The fields were patterned with stone fences that disappeared into the distant hills. Because it was springtime every field had lambs … little black lambs and little white lambs with black faces and legs. The Lake District is a beautiful part of England.

We crossed the border and had a short stop at Gretna Green. There is a very large shop at Gretna Green and this was our first look at all the woollen and tartan items associated with Scotland. This was also our first look at some very shaggy highland cows (or heelund coos) that were in a field behind the parking area. After a yummy ice cream we were on our way again for the short drive to Glasgow.

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On arrival in Glasgow we did a quick drive around to see the sights. Dinner was at a restaurant called Darcy’s and both the food and service were very good. I really enjoyed my meal of beetroot and orange salad, chicken and vegetables, and caramel slice with ice cream, and left the restaurant feeling very satisfied.

We stayed at a Jurys Inn hotel again - all the Jurys are decorated exactly the same and I had that feeling of dejavu when I entered my room. When I looked out the window I imagined that I’d be getting no sleep that night as I was looking right down on all the train tracks leading to central station. Myself and three other girls decided to go for a walk but there wasn’t much to see and the area didn’t feel particularly safe, so it was a very short walk. Back at the hotel, I discovered that the window in my room had another inner window to block out the noise of the trains. I went to bed around midnight and certainly didn’t hear any trains rattling by on the tracks below.

Day 6: 1 May 2009

Glasgow was just an overnight stay and we didn’t get to see much of the town. I was excited today because we were headed for the Scottish Highlands and I just knew it would be beautiful. Also excited because I had the front seat in the coach today ... I think the scenery along the way is just as exciting as the places where we stop … sometimes it's even better.

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When we left Glasgow it was cold but not raining, but that didn’t last long. Although it was disappointing that it was very wet today, it certainly didn’t stop my enjoyment of the fantastic scenery along the way. All day we travelled alongside lochs and running streams, and snow capped misty hills covered in yellow gorse and brown heather (unfortunately the heather doesn’t flower until July). The scenery was spectacular and everything I expected of Scotland.

Our first stop was at Loch Lomond for a cruise. Unfortunately, it was extremely wet, windy and freezing so we only caught glimpses of the beautiful scenery during the cruise. I did venture out onto the open deck to take some photos with my camera in a clear plastic bag to protect it from the rain.

The next stop was at Glencoe. Before the stop, Michael told us the history of the rivalry between the McDonalds and the Campbells. The place where we stopped was the site where the Campbells had infamously massacred the McDonalds in 1692. The rain was really coming down and most people stayed on the coach, but I had to get out of the coach to have a look and, of course I got very wet.

We travelled on to Fort William and a tour of the Ben Nevis Whisky Distillery, which was established in 1825 and is one of Scotland’s oldest distilleries. As I have no interest in whisky, this was not my favourite place, however, some in the group seemed to enjoy the tour and the wee dram of whisky at the end.

Then it was time to decide if the weather had cleared enough for the cable car ride up Ben Nevis - Michael left it up to each person to decide if they wanted to go ahead. I didn’t want to miss this (I didn’t want to miss anything) and Linda and I got aboard the cable car for the 20 minute ride to the top. Ben Nevis is 1,344 metres above sea level and is the highest mountain in Britain. At the top we stopped for some hot soup before braving the cold. Then I managed to take a couple of photos before the rain started lightly falling. Not daunted by the biting wind and a bit of light rain, we decided to take a walk on one of the tracks to get a different view, however we hadn’t gone far when we were hit by a sudden downpour. In fits of laughter we scurried back to shelter, and back onto the cable car for a leisurely ride down. At the bottom we had coffee and shortbread while waiting for the coach. The idea had been to go up the mountain for the spectacular views but it was too wet and misty … I still had a lot of fun.

We left Ben Nevis at 3.30pm and drove the short distance to the Commando Memorial for a photo stop. The memorial stands in the area where a commando training centre was set up in 1942.

We arrived at Aviemore around 6pm. The next two nights we were staying at the McDonald Highland Resort Hotel. The hotel is part of a ski resort complex, and although clean and comfortable, it was rather run down. However, the setting was beautiful and from my window I could see snow on the hills. There were also beautiful gardens filled with daffodils and I even saw a few rabbits. While travelling through England we noticed that all the daffodils had finished flowering but as we travelled north into Scotland they were still flowering and we saw whole embankments covered in wild daffodils.

When we arrived at Aviemore the weather was crisp and clear, just right for a quick walk around the grounds and down into the town to have a look at the few shops that were still open. Dinner was at the Four Seasons Hotel at 7.45pm. The food was very ordinary … I had something that was like a very thick slice of bacon with the ever present mashed potatoes, followed by cheesecake.

Michael had mentioned that there might be some live music at the local pub as it was Friday night, so all the single women went together to check it out. The pub is located next to the entrance to the resort complex so it was just a short walk after dinner. We didn’t find any live music, instead we found the pub full of young men, it was obviously boys night out. We had a drink but didn’t stay long as it was getting very rowdy ... there was some sort of drinking game involving pushups.

Outside the pub we came across our driver Paul, who told us there was another pub further down the street, and over the bridge, and then turn … we thanked Paul but hurried back to the hotel and to our nice warm beds.

Day 7: 2 May 2009

The morning was clear and cold. Our first stop at 8.45am was at Culloden Moor. This is the site of the defeat of Bonnie Prince Charlie and the Jacobites by government troops in 1746. Culloden Moor is a desolate windswept plain. I wandered across the moor by myself, with images in my head of the battle scenes from the movie Braveheart. I was fascinated by the history. After checking out the memorials, I headed for the warmth of the visitor centre and found the rest of the group already there. The souvenir shop at the visitor centre is one of the best we came across on the tour.

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We drove through Inverness on the way to Loch Ness. At Loch Ness I walked down to the water’s edge, but no Nessie in sight (except for the fibreglass models).

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We had another photo stop along Loch Ness at the ruins of Urquhart Castle. The castle is thought to have been built in the 1200s. This was a lovely spot and I would have liked to have stayed longer to have a good look around.

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We made another quick stop to photograph Eilean Donan Castle. After driving through some spectacular scenery, we arrived at the Isle of Sky. We drove over the long bridge connecting the island to the mainland and stopped for an hour for lunch, then drove around the island to see the Cuillin Hills. The island was beautiful, but extremely rugged.

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We began the journey back to Aviemmore by a different route, travelling along single lane roads through farmland and we passed the area where the series Monarch of the Glen was filmed. There was a short afternoon stop at a little town (don’t remember the name) and we arrived back at Aviemore around 5pm.

Dinner was again at the Four Seasons Hotel at 7pm. And again, the food was very ordinary. A few of the group went out to the pub, but after a tiring day I went back to my room and to bed around 10.30pm.

It rained on and off all day but that didn’t spoil my enjoyment of seeing the snow capped mountains, the lochs, running streams, and fields dotted with sheep and surrounded by crumbling stone fences. This was my favourite day of the whole tour!

Day 8: 3 May 2009

Another 8am departure, heading for Edinburgh. The morning was crisp, clear and sunny, and travelling along we were lucky enough to see several rainbows. We also saw a couple of deer and lots of pheasants.

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Our first stop was at Crathie Church (or Crathie Kirk), which is the church the Royal family attend when staying at Balmoral.

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Then we crossed the bridge over the River Dee and entered the grounds of Balmoral Castle. The castle is large but very plain looking on the outside. The original castle was bought by Queen Victoria as a holiday home in 1852, however it was considered too small so a new castle was built nearby and has been added to by successive monarchs.

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When we first arrived at Balmoral we were walking through the gardens toward the castle when I saw a red squirrel. Michael told us to look out for the red squirrel as they are now rarely seen in the area. First we stopped in the ballroom, which is the only room open to the public. The ballroom is filled with Royal memorabilia.

We then had free time and Linda and I decided to take the marked river walk. The walk through the trees along the river was beautiful and peaceful. Well, it was peaceful until we went beyond a certain point and the alarms went off on our audio guides….oops. As we couldn’t stop the loud noise we had to quickly return and ask the lady at the information desk to turn off the alarms. With silence restored, we had a look at the display of Royal family photos, and the Royal carriages, had lunch and looked in the gift shop before heading back to our meeting point for the coach. Someone from our group said there were ponies around the back of the stables, and as we still had a bit of time we hurried to have a look at the ponies and were still back with time to spare.

After leaving Balmoral we climbed higher into the hills for a while, before leaving the highlands and driving through Dundee. Dundee looked very industrial and drab.

We arrived at St Andrews at 2.30pm. St Andrews is known for two things; there’s golf of course and the University of St Andrews, which is the oldest university in Scotland, founded in 1413. We had a quick drive around St Andrews, it’s a very pretty town with lots of beautiful old university buildings. We stopped near the golf course and had an hour to look around the town. Not being a golf fan, I first had a look at the beach that backs onto the golf course and then walked to the ruins of St Andrews Castle. There has been a castle on the site since around 1200 but during the Wars of Scottish Independence (late 13th to early 14th centuries) the castle was destroyed and rebuilt several times as it changed hands between the Scottish and English.

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We arrived in Edinburgh at 5.15pm. For the next two nights we were staying at the Holiday Inn, which is next to the Edinburgh Zoo. I decided not to do the dinner tonight, by this stage of the tour I needed a break from the three course dinners. The hotel is not near the city centre and the only options for dinner were the very expensive hotel restaurant or the old pub across the road. Dianne and I went across to the pub and found that, although rather shabby on the outside, it was a lovely old pub inside and the food was good. After my drink and hamburger with chips I went back to my hotel room to catch up on my diary and washing before having a nice early night.

Day 9: 4 May 2009

We left at 8.30am for the Edinburgh tour with local guide Dave, who was of course wearing a kilt. We drove around Edinburgh as Dave told us about all the wonderful old buildings, the churches, Holyrood Palace, the little statue of Greyfriar’s Bobby, and Edinburgh Castle, which dominates the skyline . Edinburgh Castle is a very imposing 11th century fortress built on top of a sheer volcanic rock face and towers over the city of Edinburgh. We stopped at Edinburgh Castle in the area where they hold the military tattoo and we were all surprised at how small the area is and how much slope there is in this area. Today was a public holiday (bank holiday) and there was very little traffic, so we arrived a little early and as the castle wasn’t open until 9am we were waiting outside in the freezing cold. Inside the castle walls Dave showed the group around and told us about the castle before giving us free time to explore.

I went to see the Scottish crown jewels and the coronation stone, then went into the Great Hall, where I was very impressed with the display of swords and daggers hanging on the walls. I then went into the tiny 12th century St Margaret’s Chapel. The chapel is the oldest structure within the castle walls and was built by King David I in memory of his mother, Queen Margaret, who died in 1093. Edinburgh Castle has sheer high stone walls, dungeons, cannons, an exciting history, and great views over the city. I loved my visit to Edinburgh Castle!

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We left for the optional Rosslyn Chapel tour around 11.15am. The town of Roslin is only a short drive from Edinburgh and the Roslyn Chapel is just beyond the town. The chapel is unique, with beautiful stone carvings on every surface. The chapel was originally built in 1446 as a family chapel and has a very colourful history; including the destruction of the alters, and the chapel being used for stabling the horses for Oliver Cromwell’s troops, and Queen Victoria giving the order to restore the chapel. After 200 years of no services being held, the chapel was used again for services in 1852. The chapel is also associated with the Knights Templar and the Freemasons. The chapel is currently undergoing restoration and is surrounded by scaffolding and covered by a canopy. Although this doesn’t allow for very good photos, the bonus is that the public are allowed to climb up and walk around the platforms, an incredible opportunity to get a close up view of the old stone carvings on the outside of the church.

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We arrived back in Edinburgh around 2pm and then had free time until 4.30pm. We were dropped off at Waterloo Place and I walked across North Bridge and started along the Royal Mile. The Royal Mile, which is not exactly a mile long, is a shopping street running between Edinburgh Castle and the Palace of Holyroodhouse - the official residence of the Queen when she is in Scotland. I walked along checking out the shops and bought some woollen scarves for presents and some silver Scottish thistle earrings for myself. As I was very aware of the weight of my suitcase I was determined not to buy too much. I looked in heaps of shops and they all seemed to have the same woollen and tartan items so I was planning to go back to the meeting point early when I spotted a shop that printed off scrolls of Scottish family histories. As my mother’s family came from Edinburgh, I decided to go in and see if the family name was in the database. I was pleased to see the name come up, complete with family crest and history and got the information printed as a present for my mother.

It was still early when I arrived back at Waterloo Place but our driver was waiting there with the coach … always a relief to see the coach and know you’re in the right place, especially when wandering around a strange city by myself. I still had a bit of time to spare so decided on a quick look at the Old Calton burial ground, which was near the meeting place. The burial ground was first opened in 1718 and has some interesting old headstones, and has a bronze statue of Abraham Lincoln as a memorial to the Scottish soldiers who fought in the American Civil War.

Back at the hotel I had a short rest before deciding it was time to get changed for the optional Scottish dinner. However, when I went to open the lock on my suitcase I found that it was jammed. Had someone tried to open it during the day? I spent a very frustrating half hour trying to open the lock (a combination lock built into the suitcase) and had to give up as it was time to leave for dinner.

We drove to Prestonfield, which is a mansion (now a hotel) built in 1687. We didn’t go into the main building, our evening was spent in the stables. The old Georgian stable building has been converted into a very large circular pavilion. There were several coach loads of people for the dinner and show and we were the first to arrive. There was a lone piper playing at the entrance while we entered. Dinner was very good, but quite rushed ... it seemed like the dinner had to be over quickly and everything cleared away before it was time to start the show. The show was great, with Scottish singing, dancing and bagpipes, but the tribute to Robbie Burns was a bit slow and as it was getting late we were all getting sleepy. During the intermission in the show they did the haggis ceremony. We all received some haggis on a bed of neeps and tatties - that’s turnips and potatoes. I had a taste of the haggis and it was okay, it tasted a bit like a meatball.

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After a wonderful night of food and entertainment, we were back at the hotel around 11pm.

Back to my suitcase drama … the guide and driver were kind enough to try and open the lock. I knew we would have to break the lock to get it open, and I really had to get it open as I still had several weeks of travel ahead. We had to break the zipper tabs to get it open!

Day 10: 5 May 2009

Another 8am departure. I was feeling a bit sad about leaving Scotland because I’d had such a wonderful time.

We had our morning break at a very large shop selling all sorts of Scottish souvenirs and of course lots of woollen scarves … last chance to buy more scarves before leaving Scotland! I bought myself a very cute coffee mug with sheep on it and I was just hoping I could get it home in one piece. We had photo stops at the ruins of Jedburgh Abbey, which was founded by King David I in 1138, and at the England/Scotland border.

Back in England we stopped at a section of Hadrian’s Wall at Heddon-on-the-Wall. Construction of the stone wall began in AD 122 under the rule of Roman Emperor Hadrian. The wall was built across the width of northern England as a defence against raids by Scottish tribesmen. We had lunch at the Swan hotel in the tiny village.

We arrived in York around 2.45pm and Michael took us for a walking tour, taking in the Minster (large Gothic cathedral), the city wall, and the Shambles - a narrow medieval street with overhanging timber frame buildings. Michael also pointed out the haunted pub, the Golden Fleece. Following our walking tour we had free time until 5.30pm. My goal was to find a new suitcase and Linda was kind enough to help me find a luggage store, this was quite a difficult task as York is a small town with a lot of touristy type shops. However, we happened to come across a man carrying a new suitcase and he directed us to the luggage store. We still had time to wander back down the Shambles and around the very pretty town before returning to the coach pickup point.

We stayed at the Holiday Inn in York and I had a lovely big room. I was quite relieved to have the suitcase drama over and all that remained was to repack everything. Tonight we had farewell drinks and dinner at the hotel.

Day 11: 6 May 2009

We were under way for our final day at 8am. The weather was bright and clear - no rain today. Apparently we passed by Sherwood Forest but I didn’t see any forest. Michael said the forest has just about disappeared. Our short morning stop was at a roadside truck stop.

We stopped at the tiny village of Shottery, to see Anne Hathaway’s cottage. The cottage was originally a farm house where Anne Hathaway lived with her family before she married William Shakespeare in 1582. At the cottage we had a group photo taken.

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From Shottery it was only a short drive to Stratford-upon-Avon where we went in to have a look at the house where Shakespeare was born and lived as a child. I’d been through the house before so just had a quick look and headed out to find some lunch. We had about an hour to have a look around the town. Linda and I got some lunch from Subway and ate it as we walked down to the river. We’d passed some beautiful Tudor buildings when driving into the town, and we walked back to this area to take photos. We came across the Hathaway Tea Rooms, climbed the creaking stairs, up to a sloping floor and sat down for a relaxing tea and scones. This building was very interesting, and before leaving we found out it was built in 1610.

We left around 1.30pm and drove through the Cotswolds towards Oxford. This afternoon was a bit quiet on the coach, we were all a bit tired and sad that the tour was about to end, and I was thinking about the next stage of my journey.

When we arrived in Oxford Michael took us for a walking tour. For some reason Oxford didn’t excite me - there were just lots of university buildings, admittedly the buildings were very old and some were quite impressive. Because there are so many university students in Oxford, the streets were filled with people riding bicycles and there were bicycles parked everywhere. Michael took us down cobblestone streets and behind a huge door into the grassed quadrangle of Brasenose College. The college was founded in 1509. We went into the student dining room, which had a coat of arms and many portraits on the walls, and then into the college chapel. We then had about half an hour of free time before departing at 3.30pm.

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We arrived back in London around 5pm and the traffic was very heavy. We made a couple of stops to drop people off and finally arrived back at the Trafalgar office at 6pm. After sharing a great journey for the past 11 days I was suddenly by myself again as I walked towards the Grosvenor hotel.

At the Grosvenor I was given another small dingy room … at the time I was just too tired to care. I did some washing and went to bed around 10.30pm but found I couldn’t sleep as there was just something wrong with the bed - besides being tiny. I realised I was so uncomfortable because the bed was on a slope and my head was lower. I know that tiny rooms and sloping floors are part of the 'character' of old English buildings but I much prefer comfort over character.

London: 7 May 2009

I was planning to treat myself to a sleep in today but after a sleepless night I was up at 6.30am. After breakfast I went to the hotel desk to request a change of room.

As Diane (from the tour) was staying nearby, we had decided to have a London sightseeing day together. We got tickets for the hop on hop off bus, which stopped outside my hotel, and also bought tickets for the Tower of London. As it was cold we could only manage to sit on the top deck of the bus for a short while before heading downstairs. We got off the bus near the London Eye as we were intending to take the river cruise down to the Tower. However, we decided that as we were there we might as well have a ride on the London Eye, depending on the length of the line for tickets. There was no line for tickets and there was no line to get on the Eye. Diane didn’t tell me she was afraid of heights until we were about to get on … but she handled it well. The ride, or flight as they call it, was very smooth and relaxing. Although it was a cold day, the sky was clear and we had very good views across London.

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We got back on the bus, and off again at the Tower of London. The Tower was fantastic. We didn’t do a guided tour, instead we explored by ourselves. We wanted to see the crown jewels, and after winding our way through the roped barriers in several rooms, we were finally in the room with the royal crowns. There’s a moving walkway to keep the crowds moving past the crowns so we looped around for a second go on the walkway … the crowns were very impressive.

After lunch, we left the Tower and took the cruise down the river, got back on the bus and returned to my hotel. I then found a post office to send some things back home - to lighten the load in my suitcase so I could buy more on my next tour. The next thing on our agenda was to get tickets for a show. Billy Elliot was at the Victoria Palace Theatre, which was only a few minutes walk from the Grosvenor hotel, so we went to the box office hoping to get tickets. We were chatting to the friendly young man at the box office for a while, and with a big smile he asked if we were seniors. Diane and I looked at each other and quickly said ’yes’. We managed to get very good £60 seats for the seniors price of £35.

With the tickets in hand, the next goal was to get to Harrods. We got back on the bus, then had to change to another bus and finally made it to Harrods. It was getting late and we only had about 45 minutes to find our way around and purchase our Harrods souvenirs.

My room at the Grosvenor had been changed and it was a bit better - at least the floor was level. The room was also larger and even had a decent sized bathroom. There was only enough time to get changed and grab something quick to eat (there was a very good pasty shop just up the street) before meeting Diane at the theatre. Billy Elliot was a wonderful show. The children in the show were very talented and the little boy who played Billy was an incredible dancer. The show finished around 10.30pm and I said goodbye to Diane. We had a great day in London.

I went back to the hotel to prepare for my next tour. I had to be up very early to be ready for my 5.45am airport transfer.

Posted by MissWalker 22:57 Archived in England

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