Hello, mates! We’re back from our third visit to Britain and still recovering from jet lag, but here’s a quick post about our travels. There are a lot of pictures, so it might load slow, but we saw some amazing places! For the most part, this was a research trip for locations from my historical fiction series, The Arthurian Age. I plan on writing about those locations when I get to the parts of the book that refer to them. Today’s post is more general with some observations as an American in Britain.
Our first visit to Britain was in 2016. It focused mostly on the south-east and Wales, with a few days in London. Our next trip was in 2019, to Scotland. We visited Glasgow and Edinburgh, with no clue that we were running into one of the biggest festivals in Europe. This time around we would cover a lot of ground and there were no big festivals for us to stumble into. Instead, we had a different sort of event. But more on that later.
My wife and I took turns behind the wheel. Now, let’s talk about driving in the UK. You might think that driving on the left side of the road is the hard part. Nope. The only time we had to give it much thought was when we came out of a car park and saw headlights in our lane.
The hard part are the roads. Driving in Britain is a team sport. If you’re the driver, don’t expect to see anything more than a 20-degree arc from the front of your hood. Your passenger won’t get away with sleeping, either. They’re keeping an eye on your car’s navigation screen, because you cannot risk glancing down to see your next turn, or which round-about exit to take. And there’s a round-about every 100 yards or so.
It’s probably a good thing your passenger has to keep an eye on the navigation, because otherwise they’ll be preoccupied by the terror of feeling like the car is always on the verge of going over the edge of the road into a ditch or hedge.
British roads are notoriously narrow. It cannot be comprehended until you drive on a two way street that is so narrow the hedges brush both side mirrors. And, yes, I said the street is two-way. You have to be extremely alert to oncoming traffic. Luckily there are little spaces set into the sides of the roads periodically to allow one car the option of moving over just enough to let the oncoming vehicle by without taking off much paint.
It still wouldn’t be too bad if it weren’t for the speed limits. Now, here at home I’m generally considered a lead-foot who loves winding roads and challenging conditions. If I’m driving under the posted speed-limit, it’s because there’s a storm that limits visibility to my hood ornament. Not so in Britain! Streets that would be 30 to maybe 45 miles per hour are 60 miles per hour over there! I often would look for one of those little cutouts to pull over and let a line of impatient Brits scream past.
I think, next time, I will opt for the automatic instead of standard transmission. One less thing to take up concentration, and I am pretty sure my left thigh is now larger than the right. Regardless, we survived without more than a couple close calls, and the back roads we often took were absolutely beautiful. I highly recommend driving around the UK yourself if you don’t have a pre-existing heart condition.
Regarding navigation: it’s sort of. . . tricky. I do not understand British addresses. Here in the US you have a number for the house, on a particular street, in a particular town, in a particular state, with a zip code that really is only needed for the mail. Our typical destination in Britain was something like Ballyhoo, Cheerio, Keswick, Cumbria, ZX14 5AB. Nine times out of ten, the address we were given meant nothing to the navigation computer provided by our British car rental company. We found the best bet was to enter in the postal code, get in the general area, and then poke around until we finally called the person hosting our room that night to get us the last little way.
On the subject of rooms: we stayed in some B&Bs, AirBnBs and hotels. Out of eleven places we stayed, all very nice, only two had something we take for granted in the US. I’m talking about a top sheet. I don’t know why, but apparently in the UK in the summer, you either sleep bare on top of a thick comforter, or swelter beneath it. Aside from that, the only oddity is that the sinks tend to have old fashioned faucets where you have the choice of hot water or cold water, or fill the sink with both to wash your face. Oh, and the shower at the hotel in London was very odd, with two shower heads, but 6 different handles that you had to experiment throwing different directions until you actually got warm water to come out of the top showerhead. And it was never the same combination twice.
Our first concern every morning is coffee. Love it. Especially cappuccinos with less milk and no foam (a flat-white, as they’re called), and the UK did not disappoint! We had little trouble finding an excellent café, though being early risers (we’d often get on the road by 8 am), we were surprised how many cafes didn’t open until 10, when we’d expect people to already be at work, coffee-less.
The “Full English Breakfast” is a big meal: eggs, bacon, sausage, something they call black pudding, tomato, hash brown, mushrooms, and baked beans. I’m not sure how I feel about the black pudding. I can’t really describe it, aside from being black, and being sort of a sausage patty. Being an American, I think there should be a charity effort to introduce the UK to American style bacon. Theirs is sort of a cross between ours and that ham stuff the Canadians call bacon. It’s ok, but not the kind of thing that’ll make you jump out of bed. The only thing I would regularly leave behind were the beans. They just don’t seem like a breakfast thing, but apparently some folks eat them on toast. I had “porridge” a couple of times. We call it oatmeal, of course, but I’m not sure it’s the same thing. In the UK, it reminds me of paste with berries. Maybe I got it from the wrong places.
Usually we’d find a pastry at the café. The croissants were generally excellent, as were brownies. I enjoyed the pasty (Cornish hand-pie pronounced “pass-tee”), and Jenn liked the quiches. Something new I was introduced to was the Portuguese Tart. It’s a little flaky-crusted-custard-filled piece of heaven. Even Jenn liked them, who isn’t generally a fan of custardly things.
Dinners were always good. We had an English Sunday Roast one day: roast beef, parsnips, potatoes, Yorkshire Pudding (a savory, hollow roll), etc. Also, fish and chips. They were good, but being from Maine, our standards are high for seafood. Love the chips, which are thick French fries. For them, fries are the thin kind (American style, they call it). I prefer their chips. Another thing I found is “brown sauce”. The label says “HB” and has Big Ben on it. It’s sort of like ketchup, but a little more tang to it and not tomato based. I like it better than ketchup.
Adult beverages. First, Jenn loves a good cosmo. Almost impossible to find. Apparently, Brits like their booze straight. No worries, we like beer. In Maine, there are no shortages of craft beers, and Britain provides quite a variety to choose from as well. I tend to like the classic “bitters” (which really aren’t; no idea why they are called that), while Jenn likes something a little more hoppy. The one beer we found that we liked the best was Arkell’s Ales, which we discovered at this wonderfully charming inn, the Rose & Crown in Ashbury.
There were so many great restaurants and pubs, it would make too long a post to list them all. We had English, Italian, Spanish, American, Indian, Asian, Lebanese and probably more. All great. Our big splurge night was one Jenn set up in London at the skyscraper called ‘The Shard’. Incredible view, and the Chinese food was amazing.
One thing I would really recommend is to buy the English Heritage pass. You can get a visitor pass for a set period of time, rather than the full membership. It will save you a ton of money, because so many of the places you visit are cared for by English Heritage. You can do the same for National Trust, which maintains many other locations.
Back to the trip. Our first stop was in Hitchin at the North Hertfordshire Museum to finally shake hands with its Curator and Heritage Access Officer, Keith Fitzpatrick-Matthews. I’ve spoken of Keith before, including this interview. I am so fortunate to have become acquainted with him, because his expertise as an archaeologist and in ‘Dark Ages’ Latin and British history has helped my writing immensely. He is so kind and generous, my stories would be far less accurate and interesting without the details and ideas he has provided. Thank you, Keith!
Next up was a short lunch stop in Lincoln to see the cathedral and Roman gate. Lincoln was an important Roman city, and during the Arthurian era, seems to have been a focus of battles between the Britons and Anglo-Saxons. It is almost certainly the “Linnuis” mentioned in the list of Arthur’s Twelve Battles.
Further up the road we came to York. We stayed a couple nights here in a cute little Gypsy Wagon owned by an adorable black cat that couldn’t get enough attention.
The next day, we hit the road, not expecting our first visit to be so beautiful.
Hadrian’s Wall has been on my bucket list for a long time. It was built by the Romans to keep the unruly Britons from the area that would become Scotland from raiding into Roman territory in what would become England. It stretches across the entire width of the island, almost along the current border.
The Lakes District in northwest England is some of the most beautiful landscape we’ve seen. We were very lucky to have two gorgeous days there. The region is normally the rainiest part of Britain.
When planning this trip, I was told to do the Honister Pass Mine “All Day Pass”. We’d see some lovely waterfalls and hike some great locations. It turned out to be much more than we expected.
Like our first trip, we turned in the car and spent our last few days walking around London. Museums, the usual sites, and a few unexpected surprises. We walked about 10 miles per day. Not a big deal for Brits, because walking seems to be their national pastime. Public trails are everywhere in and out of cities, and no matter how remote you think you are, you are probably going to come across someone out walking their dog.
There are so many more pictures I could post, and stories to tell, but this article has run long, so I’ll wrap it up. We absolutely love our visits to Britain. The land is beautiful and the people are wonderful. We hope to eventually do a house-swap and live in Britain for a year. There is far more we want to see.
I’m ending with some pictures that we took earlier in our trip. You may know that my Arthurian historical fiction series is based on the research of the eminent historian, Geoffrey Ashe. We had planned to visit Geoffrey and his lovely wife, Patricia, in Glastonbury, but Geoffrey passed away earlier this year. We visited with Pat, had great conversation, a lovely lunch, and visited the Abbey where Geoffrey spent so much time. It was a blessing, and I am forever grateful for Geoffrey’s inspiration and both of their support.