We flew into Heathrow and I already explained in an earlier issue about getting Covid tests, rental car snafus and such. We spent the first week with a rental car driving to Edinburgh and back. We had sold our European camper in August of 2020 to a California couple sight unseen and with all our personal items still in it. It was still in storage near Edinburgh. Though our clothes, etc. weren't worth much, Mark really wanted to get back there and get stuff. We spent our first two nights in York on the way. We stayed in a pub—which was really different from our RV stays in Europe over the past 12 years. We wanted a spot within walking distance of the cathedral but with parking. Not an easy find even in covid times. We did love York though. It had been a long time since we were there, and we were very impressed with just how many Tudor half beam historic buildings have been preserved in the car free historic center. We enjoyed touring the cathedral too, though the admission fees for cathedrals in England have gotten ridiculous--$17 each with senior discount.
We stayed in Edinburgh three nights in a small, boutique hotel that we reserved through hotels.com. Snafus there too as they said the reservation had been canceled that morning—so we paid again. We didn't cancel--some problem with hotels.com. After 7 weeks of skyping with hotels.com and the hotel it has finally been resolved. I don't think we will be using them again. We spent part of two days going through our things in the camper and making big piles for charity shops and trash. We knew we couldn't take more with us than 1 regular suitcase each—our carry-ons were pretty full from what we had to have in Iceland. Of course, we were leaving all the bedding, kitchen stuff, guide books, tools, etc. but you can accumulate a lot of stuff living in a camper for over 20 months over a period of five years. We also spent a day in Edinburgh just walking around with dinner at a favorite French bistro, and of course, Mark had to visit Cadenhead's to get a couple of small bottles of single malt whiskey.
On the way back to London we had 3 days to quickly visit some favorites since we didn't know when we would be back in England with wheels. So we stopped at the Devil's Arrows (megaliths), then on to Wells to revisit our favorite English cathedral. In Oxford we went to the University's Ashmolean Museum—free and splendid. But first ate lunch at Chaing Mai Thai Restaurant that we have visited several times over the years. Only two other parties there—which was great since they only had inside seating. From Oxford we stopped at my ancestor's ruined castle—well, fortified house, now owned by English Heritage located in Nunney. Then a quick last morning stop at Stonehenge. Our Wales Heritage pass was still good, so Stonehenge was free, and we hadn't been since they opened the new visitor center. Long ago in 1979 we walked among the stones. That has not been allowed until recently, now you can pay extra to go early or late after hours. Frankly, I think it's deplorable that everything now is about having lots of money, but I guess it always has been. Anyway it is worth it in this case, as the stones don't really grab you from a distance.
Returning the car was no problem and we Ubered into the city to our 1 bedroom flat in Bloomsbury. This flat was the reason we pushed so hard to get to London. Always on our bucket list was 3 months in central London. We had visited many times in the past but always stayed in campgrounds on the outskirts. This required long public transport commutes and long days in the city—in our mid-seventies now, we needed a different approach. London, as nearly all cities and even small towns, has cracked down on short term rentals making very few available and the ones that are are more likely to be scams or illegal. Long story about this one, but the elderly owner is a Londoner who now lives near Seattle most of the year, and her grown daughter lives in London and manages the rental. It is about 6 blocks from the British Museum, 1 block to a shopping center, and 2 blocks to Russell Square tube and bus stops. Normally, she rents this for north of $225 a night, because of covid she dropped the price to under $100 to try to get some tenants. Originally we were going to stay about 11 weeks but ended up at 8 since getting into England from the US was so difficult in May and June. The flat is up only 1 flight of steps in an historic Georgian row house. It is on a very short, quiet street and actually not many folks around. There are 5 flats in the building and I think only 2 others are even occupied. Others may also be rentals or just owners working online far from the city? Who knows.
So you would think that with 8 weeks you would spend most of your time just lounging, enjoying British television, reading etc., but this is London. There are an amazing number of things to see here and the very best part is that almost all the museums are free—yes, The National Gallery of Art, The British Museum, The Tate British, Tate Modern, Wallace Collection, British Library Exhibits, The Victoria and Albert, The Natural History Museum, The Portrait Gallery, The Greenwich Maritime Museum,--I could go on. Plus most of these museums are gigantic and deserve several days of visits—which we are doing. I think our total for The National Gallery will be 6 visits! It is wonderful to just go to the museums for 2-3 hours instead of an all day slog. With covid protocols you need to make timed bookings for admission, but those are free and this summer easy to get even on day of (except on weekends.) Most folks are also wearing masks as requested by the museums.
You may wonder how anyone can visit the National Gallery of Art nearly every week and not go into overload. Well, there was some overload. But we had with us the 24 lectures of the Great Courses National Gallery DVDs. The excellent professor led us through the ages, showed us what to look for, and made us eager to find the paintings in real life. We love the Great Courses and they have added immensely to our travels over the last 13 years.
But we have also done many other things—some free, some not. Cathedrals, as I mentioned earlier and even some historic churches require entry fees. We have already been to Westminster Abbey—a hefty $25 each. So not going back. We also loved our second all day visit to Kew Gardens. ($44 for 2) Things we loved this time that were new for us: Camden Market—oh my gosh. So many interesting sales booths, lots of vintage, clever custom made art, clothes, things, good things to eat, vintage jewelry, no junk, really first rate. Tour of Parliament ($53 for 2)—wish we had done this on an earlier visit—really helps to understand British government and its influence on our own founding. Borough Market and environs-upscale street food market next to Southwark Cathedral and near oldest pub in London (where Dickens and maybe even Shakespeare dined). Queen Mary's Rose Garden in Regent's Park--wow, even in August thousands of rose bushes in bloom. Disappointments were few. Greenwich was just okay but we did enjoy the Uber boat ride there on the Thames. We had loved Portobello Street Market in the past, but this time it seemed like only two categories—clothes at one end and endless silver that no one much wants anymore the rest of the way. Also Harrods has gone from a department store for the upper middle class to one for the uber nouveau billonaires—not even much fun for browsing except in the food hall.
We found using the tube (subway) and buses very easy. You can use a contactless credit card and the system even keeps track so you don't pay more than the daily or weekly maximums no matter how much you ride. However, the system on a whole is much more expensive that European cities. For a couple you can expect to pay about $12 a day to get somewhere on the tube and $8 on the bus. Our long tube plus bus trip to Hampton Court (which is amazing and takes all day to visit) cost $28 transport and $56 entry for the two of us. Just like in Iceland, covid has advanced the use of contactless credit cards for just about everything. Only the smallest produce stands wanted cash and our lack of a credit card with a pin was no problem. We did have our Schwab debit card, so we got what pounds we needed without any ATM charges and used it the one time we bought something that needed a pin.
Our only other expense was food. We didn't eat out much, perhaps once a week plus snacks here and there. Fish and chips at pubs and elsewhere ran about $20 plus a “discretionary 12.5%” tip if at a restaurant. Our most expensive meal was at the well reviewed German Gymnasium at $61 for wiener schnitzel and bratwurst, plus beer. We thought it overpriced. We averaged about $140 a week at the grocery, but we ate a lot of partially prepared meals—Indian curry, Peking duck, pizza. Overall, prices were comparable to a big city in the US. The pound stayed right around $1.39 while we were there. Our last few visits it was in the $1.25 range, but still reasonable considering we have seen $1.50 to $1.80 before Brexit.
Our final thoughts are we are very glad we made the effort to come, but 2 months really isn't enough time unless you go pretty full tilt—well, if you like art and museums. Short term apartments are going to be very expensive in the future if covid relents, and next time we will probably stay further out from the core of the city and rely on buses to get us around at a reasonable cost. We really enjoyed the bus rides. We also talked to several real estate offices and they said they do get some furnished apartments that lease for 6 months. Since Americans can stay in GB for only 6 months, we might try that some time and share with family and friends—heading over to Europe for part of the time.
In a week we take the Eurostar train to Paris for seven weeks there. Hopefully, everything will go well there. Here's hoping you too can get out and travel as soon as you feel safe.