100 Days in the UK
100 Days in Great Britain—August/November, 2009
We are now almost a week into France, so I want to get this written while I can still remember most things without checking our blog. Overall, we have loved GB. Originally, Mark wondered how we could ever fill 3 months there since I had already made five visits and he three. Now he has recanted and wants to go back again whenever we can. Part of it is I'm sure that GB fits with many of our interests. I am a former English teacher and love history. Mark also loves history especially megalithic finds and World War II. We both like to hike. GB has all of this and much more. It is also a very easy place for Americans. You can talk to people, ask directions, read all the signs in the museums and on the highways, read the directions on food labels, etc. Yet so much is so delightfully different than the US that it never gets boring. Even the language is strange enough—we were still puzzling over new expressions on day 100!
To start with the practical. We spent 102 days from Aug. 12 to November 22. We crossed on the P & O Ferry from Dover/Calais both ways, getting a slight discount with The Caravan Club. The pound stayed at about $1.66 to the dollar almost the entire time and diesel ranged from about $7.18 to $7.61 a gallon. We drove almost 5000 miles, which was 2000 more that I thought we would. We went as far north as John O'Groats in Scotland and then west to the Outer Hebrides Isles of Lewis and Harris. We missed the very northwest of Scotland and Southern Wales but pretty much went everywhere else, with 9 nights in London. We did very little backtracking—maybe 300 miles in total.
We averaged $500 a month for groceries (not including alcohol) and a total of only $325 eating out including snacks for the entire 102 days. We spent 34 nights in campgrounds or farm sites—with the most expensive in Edinburgh in high season at $43 a night and London in low season at $25 a night. We had joined The Caravan Club before we left the States and had their campground guide. The other 68 nights we wild camped. Wild camping in UK is officially not allowed and often it was a struggle to find a spot but only twice did we have to go to a campground when we could find no alternative. We stayed everywhere from laybys on major highways to parking lots in city centers. Never did we have a problem, nor were we ever asked to move. Our savings on campgrounds more than made up for our overspending on diesel.
Our other large expense was admissions in which we included parking fees and local transportation like bus, ferry or underground. For the entire period we spent right at $1,750 or about $17 a day. This included opera tickets in Edinburgh, the Highland Games in Braemar, a concert in London, the ferry to Outer Hebrides, a one day tour to the Orkneys etc. Some sites were very expensive such as Windsor Castle $47 with parking even with senior rates. We also bought the English Heritage Pass for $86 and the National Trust pass at $140. These both more than paid for themselves. The Trust pass is good throughout England, Scotland and Wales. The Heritage pass allows free admission in England and then half off in Scotland and Wales until you are a member for two years. If you are going to visit all the castles of Wales it might be better to buy their Heritage pass as they seem to have the most sites. Basically, the Trust pass got you into the great houses and gardens and the Heritage pass to the castles. However, the Heritage pass does not work for the Queen's Royal properties such as Windsor or the Tower of London, etc. And the Trust pass doesn't work at the great houses and castles where the owners still live such as Arundel, Warwick, Longleat, or Chatsworth and they are places you will not want to miss. In addition, nearly all the Cathedrals charge—some of them quite a lot, like Westminster Abbey at over $20 a person.
I think the thing that astonished us the most was that we never grew tired of the palaces, houses, gardens or cathedrals. Each one was so unique, each special with something you hadn't seen before or with a fascinating historical twist. The Cathedrals usually had a guided tour included which were very worthwhile. Most of the Heritage properties had a free audio and most of the great houses had wardens in every room to answer questions (and keep track of the silverware!) I also spent most of the trip reading British historical fiction which was a wonderfully easy way of finally understanding which Mary was Queen of Scots and which Elizabeth's sister and why they were so important, along with dozens of others. And of course it was great fun to see the house where The Duchess of movie fame lived and the other house where it was filmed and the house where they filmed Pride and Prejudice, etc. Be sure to rent all these wonderful (and other) films or bring them along on DVD.
One comment on the roads. It is difficult driving on the wrong side but it does get easier everyday. Except maybe for the navigator who feels like every lorry is about to crash into them headon. The roads can also be very narrow, often only one lane with pull outs even in heavily touristed areas. You really should try to be in the smallest camper you can live with. If you are longer than 24 ft. you will be sorry. Shorter would be better. Most English use caravans so they can stay in one place and take the car off sightseeing. We had bikes but found them just dead weight as we are not strong enough riders to cope with the traffic and narrow roads. We finally gave them to a charity store. A GPS is a necessity but sometimes will lead you down some really small lanes—we got to the point where we would just ignore Tom if we didn't like the looks of a road. We did have a spiral atlas which is good to have, but doesn't help much when you get into the really tight places. Wonderfully, there are no toll roads so that is a great savings.
Doing laundry is somewhat different than on the Continent. Most of the washers are top loaders and a wash and dry for one load runs about $8. None of the campgrounds allow any type of laundry line. We very rarely saw any type of laundromat so always used the facilities at the campgrounds.
In terms of when to go, we were about a month behind—meaning that the good weather (above freezing at night) is pretty much finished in even southeast England by the end of October. Worse is that the National Heritage closes nearly all their houses Oct. 31 so touring after that date would cause you to miss a lot of wonderful things. London was fine because everything stays open year round, but it was still cold and rainy. If we were to do it all again, I would try to allow at least five months and start in May—however, July and August will be packed everywhere and you would have to call ahead or go online to make campground reservations well in advance. One of the nice things about Caravan Club membership is that you can make online reservations without a deposit pretty much as far in advance as you liked.
I am not going to give you a run down of the sightseeing part of the trip. If you want that level of detail it is all in our blog at http://roadeveron.blogspot.com I will list some of the places that you might miss which we thought were exceptional.
Punting on the River Cam at Cambridge with a college guide who could answer so many questions. Be sure to bargain hard with the men selling the trips on the street. I think we paid half of his first offer—or close to it. Also there are great discount bookstores in Cambridge to buy maps, travel guides etc. that are only a year old or so. Nearby in Duxford is the Imperial War Museum which Mark loved because this one does all the WW II aircraft plus an American flight museum too.
Lindesfarne was interesting because of the drive across the underwater causeway at low tide and don’t miss the tour of the castle that was turned into a home and lived in until the 1950s. Also you can park for free on the mainland side of the causeway and spend the night.
Edinburgh during the August festival is magnificent. There are a million street acts, plays, concerts, a book festival. It was incredibly exciting and the castle is worth the tour though expensive even at half price. We also got tickets to the last night of the Tatoo—and it was amazing. If you like bagpipes at all you must go. We bought tickets online about 2 months ahead but I had to keep checking back to get them. It really doesn’t matter where you sit but if you are going to one with fireworks the left stand as you face the castle (I think north) would be best.
Be sure to go to a Highland Games. We got tickets easily 2 weeks in advance online to the Braemar Games which are especially exciting because the Queen and family almost always attend. She doesn’t come till the afternoon though and only stays about an hour. We were in the third row and her Bentley passed about 15ft away from us. It was really fun. But if you visit for the games in early September you won’t be able to go in Balmoral Castle because it is not open when she is in residence. We parked in a lot right in the town center for 3 nights for free—but you have to get there a day early or you will have to find something further away. The one campground gets booked many months in advance.
We loved our trip to Orkney. We decided not to take the camper and parked at the ferry parking lot instead of paying for the campground next door. We went on the one day bus and ferry tour but opted to stay overnight so Mark would have time to include the Highland Park Distillery tour (which he loved.) We stayed in a b and b in the main town for $100—but the breakfast was amazing.
We did take our van to the Isles of Lewis and Harris—which are incredibly unique and filled with important megalithic sites. We left from Skye because we didn’t realize that the main ferry actually leaves from a town just north on the coast and then you can finish with the ferry to Skye. We were disappointed in Sky—maybe it was the weather which was far too windy and rainy for any hiking. Harris is also the only place in the world where Harris Tweed is made and prices there are relatively cheap and the black house museum was extremely interesting.
Chatsworth was a superb great house and deserves a full day for house and gardens. In fact almost all the houses and still lived in castles deserve a full day. Many of the houses have used bookshops where you can pick up books for a pound or two. None of them allow camping in the parking lots so its best to get there before the tour buses and then have plenty of time in the early evening to look for a place to stay.
If you are into plants, Eden in Cornwall is worth a visit. The largest greenhouse in the world plus wonderful outdoor gardens and a ecologists dream for a gift shop.
We also really like the Snowshill Manor in the Cotswalds. The owner was a lifelong collector and there is an amazing variety of stuff in every room. Another really memorable house—an absolute perfect look at Victorian England was Lanhydrock near Plymouth. There are 50 rooms including an incredible nursery suite and the rooms of the heir who was killed in WW I and the rooms shut up and never reopened until bought by the National Trust. It also had the most amazing kitchens we saw in all of England. Don’t miss it.
Finally, though we have been to London several times, we had never been to the Victoria and Albert Museum. It is a little out of the way but the galleries had incredible collections of furniture, art, and the jewelry rooms were better than the crown jewels at the Tower. We also went to a concert at St. Martins in the Fields Church. The acoustics were very good though even when we paid for pretty expensive seats you can’t see much from the floor. Just buy the cheaper ones. You can also grab a reasonably priced lunch or dinner in the crypt. But it feels strange to be eating in a graveyard on top of the tombstones. We camped at Crystal Palace and it is an hour bus ride to Westminster—somewhat quicker if you change to the subway part way in. We have also stayed in the past at Abbey Woods. I remember it being a long way to commute also. Reserve well in advance for either of them in any season as they are almost continually booked up.
Have a wonderful time in Great Britain!