October 23, 2022: Charlotte. Whew – the British Trip was amazing! History and hiking, savory pies and pints for 75 days of autumn through England, Wales, and Scotland.
Where were we?
The United Kingdom, or Britain, or England? Often the terms are used interchangeably, but they are not the same. If you are confused (as I was), this short video (produced pre-Brexit) is an amusing clarification of terms. Our trip focused on Great Britain – the large island comprised of England, Wales, and Scotland.
While London often gets the attention, and Edinburgh to a lesser extent, we will spent most of our time in the “green and pleasant land” beyond the cities. There were some fantastic “rambles” (as they say in the UK) in Britain. Day hikes in the Surry AONB (Area of Outstanding National Beauty), country walks through the Cotswolds, coast miles in Welsh Pembrokeshire, fell-walking in the Lakes District, and a munro or two in the Scottish Highlands.
“Britain still has the most reliably beautiful countryside of anywhere in the world.”
― Bill Bryson
Britain has a fascinating history, with sites dating back 5,000 years. Looking back in time: The Beatles (1962), Churchill’s Bunker from WW2 (1945), the English Civil War (1642), the destruction of the monasteries by Henry VIII (A.D. 1558), Canterbury Tales (A.D. 1392), the Magna Carta (A.D. 1215), the 1066 Battle of Hastings (Norman Invasion), Viking settlements in A.D. 800, the Roman fortifications at Hadrian’s Wall (A.D. 124), and ancient standing stones like Stonehenge (3000 BC).
And we didn’t need a translator for any of it! Though the scouse in Liverpool was a bit thick… as was the highland Gaelic!
After a few days in London, we rented a car and took a long counter-clockwise road-trip around the isle. The map below shows our approximate route and points of interest. I’m happy to say we survived driving a stick-shift on the “wrong side” of the road. This despite the fact that I hit the curb before ever leaving the rental lot!
Highlights of the Trip
Here are some highlights from the trip that I’ve not yet had time to turn into full posts. For the curious, follow the links to more details.
The Isle of Skye – When the sun shines, Skye is absolutely stunning. Lush green abounds, with blue and white skies. Each curve of the trail brings new wonder.
When it rains, which is often, it really rains. Cold and grey urge a fire and a mug of hot toddy. But as soon as you settle in, the sun is back. Locals don’t seem to mind – rain or shine, they are outside enjoying the views.
There is a surprisingly rich fossil record on Skye, with petrified dinosaur tracks at multiple points along the coast, and frequent new discoveries.
Weyland’s Smithy – a small grove of trees hides a mystery in the middle of wheatfields.
Around 3500 BC this “long barrow” was created as a group burial site. This freely accessible site pre-dates Stonehenge by nearly 500 years.
Nearby is another amazing site – White Horse Hill. There a stylized image of a running horse, only fully visible from the air, was carved into the chalk hillside between 1700-210 BC.
Stratford upon Avon – is home of the Bard himself, William Shakespeare.
We were fortunate to catch a performance of “The Merchant of Venice” performed in the city park. While the play has some ridiculous elements, it is a more complex story than I’d imagined, and it is hard to determine who the true villain is.
Shakespeare is buried in the nearby cathedral. Interestingly, no one knows what he really looked like. The popular images found today were created centuries after his death.
The Battle of Hastings – was a profound moment in Western history. In 1066, “William the Bastard” became “William the Conqueror” when his French Norman forces invaded and conquered England.
As a result, English has many old French words as the new overlords brought their language and culture. In fact, some famous Englishmen (e.g., Richard Lionheart, Robin Hood’s King) spoke only Old French!
We saw more of this story illustrated on the famous Bayeux Tapestry, across the English Channel in Normandy, during The French Trip.
Banksy in Bristol – Banksy is the world’s most famous street artist, often making his mark in danger zones (Ukraine, Palestine) to make a statement about peace and justice.
While his real name is a guarded secret, it is known that Banksy started as a troubled youth in Bristol. His works today sell for millions – and he donates much of this to help migrants and the oppressed.
We were fortunate to see a days-old new work in his hometown of Bristol. Note the plexiglass the city installed to protect the graffiti art they had once outlawed.
Cambridge – along with Oxford, the most prestigious of British universities.
Both come from humble origins.
Oxford was literally an “ox ford” across the river. The town of Cambridge was named after the first bridge over the river Cam.
Here you see cows grazing along the Cam River in the middle of the university. In the distance, a student on a “punt” (flat bottomed boat) poling his way down the river with campus visitors.
Canterbury Cathedral – is the seat of the Church of England (also known as Anglican, or Episcopal in the USA).
In 1170, St. Thomas Becket was martyred in this corner of the (then Catholic) cathedral, hacked to death with swords by three of King Henry II’s knights. The jagged cross is a memorial.
Thomas was a close friend of King Henry, rising to be his Chancellor and later Archbishop of Canterbury. To the King’s frustration, however, Thomas consistently supported the rights of the church over the monarchy.
London’s West End – is the theater district, similar to Broadway in New York. There are nearly 40 venues here!
We caught three great shows. Pictured is the Aldwich Theater, where we saw The Tina Turner musical, the story of her difficult life and rise. Fantastic music!
At our second show we saw Amy Adams in The Glass Menagerie, a memory play by Tennessee Williams, his first hit.
Finally, Hamilton. A rap/hip-hop musical about a founding father? I had my doubts. But wow, it was absolutely phenomenal. If you can, go!
Churchill’s Bunker – beneath the busy streets of London, not far from Parliament, lie the secret bunkers from which Sir Winston Churchill guided the UK during the WWII Battle of Brittan.
The bunker was built in secret amid London air raids. It became the hub for wartime Brittan, with radio transmitters, secret phone lines, strategic maps, and tiny apartments for staff.
Much of the site remains untouched since VE day. Packets of sugar, phones, cigarette trays and maps on the wall are all as they were when staff emerged into the sunshine to victory celebrations.
The Oldest Pub – Ye Olde Trip to Jerusalem is said to be the oldest pub in England, founded in 1189.
The pub is carved into the soft sandstone beneath Nottingham Castle, where the legendary Robin Hood matched wits with the Sherriff of Nottingham and Evil King John (see the Worcestershire Byte).
Supposedly, King Richard the Lionheart and his crusaders had a pint here before heading off to the Third Crusade to free the Holy Land. He left his brother John in charge; that didn’t work out too well.
Rievaulx Abby – in 1558, King Henry VII started the protestant reformation. Why? He wanted a divorce, a new wife, and a male heir. The pope said “no”.
Henry also wanted the church’s wealth. Soon after the split, he disbanded all monasteries and expropriated all their lands and wealth for the crown.
Throughout Brittan you find massive ruins of once magnificent communities. Whitby, Rievaulx, and Wenlock are examples of once thriving monastic communities that stand looted and bare.
Oh, and Henry’s most successful heir? Queen Elizabeth I; her 45-rein is the most glorious in English history.
York – was a very pleasant surprise, offering more than we’d expected.
The town retains it’s medieval walls, and within stands massive York Minster. The first church was built here in 637, with the current edifice completed in 1472.
Beneath the minster lie Roman ruins – Constantine the Great was fighting here when in 306 AD his troops proclaimed him emperor. He united the empire, converted to Christianity, and summoned the church council that produced the Nicene Creed.
There are also remains of a Viking settlement from 800 AD, and the magnificent timber-frame Merchant Adventurers’ Hall from the 1350s’
Edinburgh – what a fantastic city. Bagpipes, philosophers, Scotch Whiskey, and the spectacular Edinburgh Castle.
Two weeks prior to our visit, Queen Elizabeth II had laid in state at St. Giles Cathedral, pictured here. The church was full of memorial flowers.
Early October is already chilly and damp in Scotland. Should we come again, it will be in the summer for the Royal Edinburgh Military Tattoo and its massed pipes and drums!
Loch Ness – this was as close we came to a Nessie sighting.
We did have an entertaining stop at the Loch Ness Centre & Exhibition. While it was a little hokey, it gave a good history of the “search for the Loch Ness monster”, from sensational pranks to serious scientific research.
My bet – no such thing. There isn’t enough biomass in the lake to support a any behemoth. I could be wrong, maybe she eats unbelieving tourists?
Alnwick Poison Garden – Alnwick has a impressive castle (it stood in as Hogwarts in two of the Harry Potter films) and a lovely botanical garden.
The real attraction, however is the poison garden. The plants within can sicken or kill just with a touch. Nightshade, hogweed, strychnine, hemlock, ricin and more grow here.
Many of the poison plants were refined into early pharmaceuticals. White willow bark, for example, is similar to aspirin and has been used for 1000’s of years.
The garden is under 24-hour guard, and may be visited only with a guide.
Ironbridge – in Telford is named for, as you might guess, the first iron bridge in the world, built in 1779.
This valley, once rich in iron, coal, and other minerals, was where the industrial revolution began.
Like the Allegheny in the USA, the early industry left the area barren, poisoned, and largely abandoned. Nature has slowly recovered, and valley is now green. Local economy is now largely drive by tourism as people explore Victorian history.
If you are interested in a similar trip, the attached PDF itinerary is an excellent place to start, with sites, links to information, and some accommodation recommendations.
For more about this journey, check out our related Travel Bytes below!