Ireland to Dover, July, 2016
[Mark and Vicki have been traveling pretty much full time since they retired in 2008 and sold their home in Missoula, Montana. They RVed in Europe starting in 2009 for five years in their US Roadtrek, sold it in 2013, and then bought a European camper in 2015. So far, about 39 months in Europe. Mark blogs frequently with lots of pictures at www.roadeveron.blogspot.com. . Vicki's more practical guide to their travels is at their website www.TheRoadGoesEverOn.com.]
Bru na Boinne is a terrific megalithic site containing 60% of the world's megalithic art with Knowth alone having 40%. Everything is by guided tour and bus from the visitor center, and you need to arrive in the morning to get a timed ticket. Be sure to go to both, and that they give you a sticker for both. It is free with your OPW pass. The hour at Knowth is somewhat rushed as there are 97 decorated stones. Leaving about 2pm we had plenty of time to drive to Loughcrew and take the 20-30 minute hill climb up to the tombs. The guide with the key is there until 5:15 pm in the summer. There are also the remains of 4 or so significant tombs with carving and sites of 28 total. We spent the night in the parking lot with no problem. N53.74405 W7.11877 It is a narrow one lane road the last mile or so but little traffic until the evening when lots of folks came to walk their dogs and several stayed to see the sunset from the 360 degree view at the top. There is also a campground about 200 yards away.
The next morning we wandered back to the vicinity of Bru na Boinne to visit Fourknocks for our Indiana Jones experience. At the tomb parking lot (N53.39543 W6.32539) which is just a one car pull off on each side of the narrow road there is a sign to go pick up the key at Mr. Fintan White's house. We got lost getting there and finally got better directions from the postman. (key: N53.59362 W6.34926) You leave a deposit, take the key, and unlock the steel door, and with your flashlight explore the inside on your own. Certainly, not a huge tomb, but several carved stones including the only one with a human face in Ireland. What we liked about Loughcrew and Fourknocks is being able to photograph and touch the stones all you want. What fun. Loughcrew is out of the way, but if you are going to Bru na Boinne leave some time to explore Fourknocks.
Less than an hour away in the outskirts of Dublin we again spent the night at the giant Blanchardstown shopping center N53.39073 W6.38790 across from one of the largest indoor malls in Europe. This one had no gates and no signs unlike some of the others in the area. We had reservations for Camac Valley campground for the next two nights, and had booked Riverdance for Friday night and the Musical Pub Crawl for Saturday. Riverdance was super. We had seats in the Dress Circle near the middle, four rows back. I think it would have been better to be closer to the front even if more to the side to be able to see the footwork better. But my low power binoculars helped a lot. Riverdance is not like the Folk Theater performance in Tralee; it is more “entertaining” than authentic, but who cares! It was great entertainment.
Our opinion of the musical pub crawl is that it is a must do and we regret immensely that we didn't go it at the beginning of our trip or even in 2009. It is inexpensive at 13E and you learn about Irish instruments and what pub music sessions are all about and how to attend them. Also the entertainment was first rate. Now, I like the “traditional” pub music in the Temple Bar area even though it is touristy. But they also share with you where to attend authentic sessions in Dublin like the one we went to at the Cobblestone and others such as Devits on Camden St. and O'Donohughs on Marion Rd near Stephen's Green.
We took the Stena Line ferry back to Holyhead. Note that there is very limited parking and really not even much room to line up, so don't plan on spending the night at the port like you can do so many other places. In Holyhead we skipped the pay port parking we had used on the way over and parked at the Tesco shopping center N53.30151 W4.61802. It was Sunday evening at it was closed, so no issues. There are limited spaces outside of the parking garage, so on another night you might have to arrive fairly late to find a spot. Nearby Holyhead is the National Trust (NT) Plas Newydd. It has a glorious position above the Menai Strait and several long walks. Since the First Lord of Anglesey was Wellington's second in command at Waterloo there is a Waterloo Museum. But the main fame of the house is Rex Whistler's 47 ft. fantasy landscape mural—but there are also 2 Snyders and 1 humongous Van Dyke painting. We drove to several nearby wild camping sites from wildcamping.co.uk but all were unacceptable and we finally lighted at a car park on the outskirts of Bangor N53.23396 W4.12004, right on the harbor. It was only two miles to our next stop at NT Penrhyn Castle.
Penrhyn Castle is not a real castle but a huge neo-Norman concoction built 1820 with money first made in the sugar/slave trade and then in Welsh slate. The gardens are not as nice as many NT properties but the State rooms all have original furniture from Victorian and earlier periods. When Queen Victoria visited she refused to sleep in the slate bed carved for her as she said it looked like a tombstone. I also went on the separate guided tour up to the roof and through the un-restored “family rooms” tower that was basically abandoned a hundred years ago. I would have abandoned it too, since the only staircases for the four floors are Norman stone circular ones, and damp continually seeps through the limestone-faced brick walls in Wales' very wet weather. We returned to the Bangor parking lot for the night.
Llanberis and Snowdonia National Park are very close by. Mark climbed Snowdon on our last trip. This time he turned back fairly early on, and I made it just past the halfway house cafe. It is an excellent path and has hundreds of hikers everyday. It was not raining but Snowdon was covered in clouds. Most hikers take 6-7 hours for this 9 mile round trip, 3,000 foot climb. We had thought about going up the slightly shorter route from Pen y Pass but the parking lot there was already full by 10:30 am. On my hike I spoke with a couple who had come up that way and they said they hadn't liked it at all because of a lot of rock scrambling and steps with cabling. There are lots of wild-camping spots along the road between Llanberis and Betws y Coed but most are narrow. We stayed at a wider parking lot at about N53.10722 W4.09414.
We liked Betws, though it is very touristy. And we spent some time and some pounds in the many outdoor stores. Shopping is a lot more fun in Britain when the pound is $1.29—after Brexit. The TI has a wonderful aerial film of Snowden and the surrounding parkland. If the weather was better, we would have definitely spent an extra day and either tried to walk up again or take the train. That evening we drove on towards Chirk and spent the night wild camping in a small parking lot adjacent to a picnic area. The chocolate shop owner said no one would mind our staying there. The little village was called Pentrefoelas N53.04807 W3.68192
Our plan was to do several more great houses before London. Our choice of sightseeing may seem odd to some, but remember we have spent seven months in the Uk since 2009, and made 4 or 5 trips before that, so we have time now to do other things. We also love the National Trust sites with all their quirks, family and social history. Chirk Castle is truly a castle. Built in the 1200s by Edward I to protect the English Marches from raiding by the Welch. It has been continuously lived in for 700 years. Lots of updating in that time but the rooms reflect many different periods of history. We took the guided tour in the morning and then had time to wander on our own when the State rooms opened to everyone. The Myddelton family owned the castle from 1585, and when hard times hit in 1911, they were able to lease it for 35 years to Howard de Walden (the 13th richest man in England at the time). He was a keen medievalist and spent millions of pounds putting on a new lead roof, reglazing the windows, adding central heating and flush toilets. Then the Myddeltons wanted it back! It has a small area of formal gardens but a huge parkland with woodland walks. There is a Caravan Club site right outside the gate but with a surcharge of 12 pounds for non-members we opted for the train station parking lot. A police car cruised by about 9pm with nary a word. N52.93397 W3.06632. It is only a short walk to a nice village with an interesting parish church with lots of medieval beasts carved on the roof beams. A few miles away in Oswestry we caught up on the washing at the Unicorn launderette—a mere 12 lbs for two loads ($16-even at the low pound rate now.)
One of our favorite houses turned out to be Erddig near Wrexham. The write up in the National Trust book seemed only so-so, but I was interested in the fact that some of the servant's attic bedrooms were still intact. In fact, it turned out that almost everything was still intact as it was a hundred years ago. The Yorke family lived there for 250 years and hardly ever got rid of anything. The Trust was left with the house, grounds, and 30,000 artifacts. Each room has a very interesting book with old pictures and stories regarding objects and people. The walled garden was the largest we have seen anywhere and we literally didn't have time to take in the walks on the immense estate. I highly recommend it and would like to visit again because we missed so much. We spent that night at a lay-by near Stoke on Trent. The British-Indian family living next to it were very excited to talk to us about our travels and the US. They even invited us in for a curry supper, but we had already eaten. N52.8807 W 1.6171 aprox. Southwest of Derby
We had planned on going to Chatsworth next. Not National Trust but the home of the Duchess of Devonshire (aka Duchess movie) which we loved on our other two visits. But as we approached the car-park it was pouring rain with more to come. Faced with a 44 lb entry fee we decided to press on working our way over to the M1 and heading south. This turned out to be very fortuitous because the next day we decided to backtrack a little from the lay-by where we spent the night (near Aylesbury N 51.83265 W.85419). We were headed to Stowe. This is the garden that started the craze for English landscape gardens that Capability Brown further popularized. It is immense and we loved the tour we took with a garden volunteer. We spent about 2 hours in the garden and saw maybe half of it! For an small 4.6 lb fee, we entered the house which isn't owned by the Trust. It was rebuilt in the late 1700s by the richest family in England—the Temple-Grenvilles. When Queen Victoria visited she commented that it was nicer that any of her palaces—all 510 feet long of it. However, the family had spent so profligately that soon after the visit they were bankrupt. The contents were sold and the house shut up. Finally, in 1922 demolition was avoided when a group of men purchased it to start the Stowe School for boys. The school still uses parts of it today for its roughly 750 male and female students who pay about $54,000 for tuition, room and board. Tours run even when school is in session by the Stowe House Trust—a necessity in raising enough money to restore and maintain such a facility. Since school was out for the summer, we had the extra privilege of being able to walk around the state rooms on our own once the excellent guided tour was finished. Allow a full day for Stowe and take the free shuttle from the gatehouse—don't worry, you will get plenty of walking in. My pedometer read 17,000 steps at the end of the day, so I was regretting not using the shuttle. That evening we headed back towards Aylesbury to different lay by that even had a toilet where we could dump our cassette, but far busier than the night before. N51.84540 W .91368
The next two days we visited two National Trust properties both once belonging to the Rothschild family. Two of the seven built in Buckinghamshire. The family at one time owned 44,000 acres there, and it was nicknamed Rothschildshire. Ascot was the hunting lodge and stud farm where all five brothers and families would gather. Lots of great art—Stubbs, Stein--still occupied on occasion by Lord Rothschild and his wife who are in their 80s. If short of time, miss this one (unless you are a porcelain fan), and instead plan a full day at nearby Waddeston Manor. This “French chateau” was built in about 1878 by the widower Ferdinand Rothschild and only used for weekend house parties. It is mammoth and filled with his art, furniture and porcelain collections bought to show off to his friends and clients. Everything is gorgeous and most of the textiles are the originals. We went on both the garden tour and the wine cellar tour. In the 1990s the current Lord Rothschild—cousin of the one at Ascot, decided to bring 15,000 or so bottles from the family's vineyards in France, New Zealand, Chile, etc. to this cellar for his use and also to sell. Fancy a 895 lb bottle of wine? You can buy it in the gift shop. Timed tickets are needed for the house as it is immensely popular. We got ours online—free for National Trust members, but they are usually available if you get there early and it's not a holiday. Our house visit was cut a little short, sandwiched between the two other tours. Try to allow for two hours in the house. You won't want to miss Marie Antoinette's desk and the carpet from the chapel at Versailles. And photos are allowed!
An hour and a half south we parked at basically a truck lot by McDonald's and various motels in order to get to Highclere Castle (Downton Abbey) when it opened the next morning. Noisy, but we found a much better, quiet lay by the next night at N51.31658 W1.33772 only 1 mile away. We needed to be early as all the tickets sell out months in advance mostly to coach tours. They are only open a few weekends during the year and then 5 days a week from mid July to beginning of September. We had no problem getting tickets on site, but they do sometimes not have any. Not National Trust, so 17 lbs but so worth it if you are a fan. No pictures allowed inside. We had been three years ago but with our 2 year old granddaughter who was distracting. Don't miss the Egyptian Exhibit as Lord Carnevon was one of the discoverers of King Tut's tomb and then died of the “curse” soon after.
On to London. Ah, the big cities, we personally love them but there is no getting around that they are expensive and usually difficult to get to from campgrounds. This time as temporary members of the Camping and Caravan Club we stayed southwest of London in Hersham at the Walton on Thames campground. Actually only about 14 lbs a night because there are no washrooms, which we don't really need anyway. Downside is it is half mile walk to the bus (which is an extra 2.5lbs as not in London day ticket) or a mile to the Hersham train station. So we walked a lot. If you leave after 9:30 am the RT trip ticket is 10.5 lbs plus the cost of using the underground or buses. You either want a day travel ticket for about 6 lbs or an Oyster card (5 lb deposit) as individual tickets for the subway are 4.6 lbs each and on Oyster, half that. Fortunately, the rail line was having a promotion for 2 for 1 on a number of attractions so our daughter's family save 30lbs on the London Eye and we, 14 lbs on Kew Gardens. Staying at Crystal Palace Campground (non member price was 38lb or more as I remember) was out for us as our 2001 camper would have been easily marked for the huge low emission zone fine.
The Walton Campground is open only from end of May till October 31. They also have storage for 240 lbs for the whole winter but there is a long waiting list.
There is one other possibility we found for wild-camping near London. Near Aylesbury N 51.83265 W.85419) is a layby that is only about a quarter mile from the Aylesbury suburban train station. One could spend the night at the layby (or the one at N51.84540 W .91368), park at the station for 3 lbs a day and take the 1 hour train ride to London. I don't know what the train fare cost is.
We had two big must dos for London: Hampton Court and Kew Gardens. Both were wonderful and take a full day—I mean be there at opening and stay all day. Kew also had an exceptionally interesting restaurant with lots of quiche, salads, and cakes at fairly okay prices. I especially wished we had gone to Hampton Court years ago so that this could have been a second or third visit. Original rooms and furnishings in one wing from Henry the 8ths time, a second wing from William and Mary and a third from the 3 Georges. An immense amount of history in one gigantic building plus wonderful gardens and the oldest grapevine in the world. At Hampton and Kew we went on a tour with one of the gardeners—again exceptional. One night we went out to eat in the Covent Garden area at Punjabi Indian Restaurant. Excellent food, reasonably priced. The 15lb minimum per person gave you more than you could finish in one meal.
Once we gathered up our granddaughter we circled the M to Oldbury Hill Camping and Caravan Club site. Fairly small and difficult to level on, it is one of the few campgrounds in the area where Chartwell, Knowles, Igththam Moat and other wonderful National Trust properties are. But this time we are here for Ann Boleyn's childhood home, Hever Castle, where there will be jousting for the weekend. There are lots of crazy small roads in this area of Kent and you need to check your GPS against an atlas. If you decide on the campground these coordinates will get you to the right lane approach off the A road. N51.28058 E .26176 You must call ahead for weekends in the summer for almost all English campgrounds or you won't get a spot.
I was concerned that Hever Castle wouldn't be that good as it is run by a for-profit group that bought it from the Astor family in the 1980s. However, the gardens were lovely and there were many, many open rooms in the caste. Some of the Astor's furniture was still there but most rooms had antiques from the 1500s through the 1700s. It was crowded because of the jousting weekend—which was great fun for anyone up to about age 15, though they did try to introduce some adult “humor” for us oldsters. Our granddaughter also loved the water maze and the adventure playground. Penelope liked it so much that the next day she opted to visit another real castle instead of the 100 Acre Woods of Pooh fame.
Bodiam Castle is one of the few ruined castles owned by the National Trust. It is a perfect example of what everyone's view of a small, moated, medieval castle should look like. We climbed inside the towers to the roof, fed the fish and ducks, and tried on armor and learned how people in the castle kept themselves clean. We watched the introductory movie twice at Penelope's insistence. Moving on we pressed forward to Dover. A headline in the news mentioned 14 hour waits to clear French passport control at the docks. Luckily, more help had been summoned and we were only tied up in traffic for about 20 minutes. The city is undergoing lots of construction and our former parking lot was a pile of rubble. We drove into town and found a pay and display lot—free after 5 pm--that worked great. But it can only take campers up to 6 meters. N51.12398 E1.31425
And so we are off on the ferry for Calais. We have one month left in Europe this year and almost all of it will be in glorious France.