1. Travel Tales

Sixteen Royal Days in the UK

“The English never draw a line without blurring it.”
– Winston Churchill

This is how I always felt about the United Kingdom.  I never truly understood the differentiation between United Kingdom and Great Britain (and where England, Wales, Scotland, and Ireland fit into the mix).  Since I could stare at maps all day long and this baffled me, I thought a quick geography lesson might be useful.

Great Britain: The large island to the northwest of continental Europe, comprising the countries England, Wales, and Scotland.

United Kingdom: The sovereign state comprising the island of Great Britain and Northern Ireland.  (This does not include the Republic of Ireland, which is what most of us probably think of when we hear “Ireland.”)

So what does this mean for a traveler?  The good news is travel throughout the United Kingdom is easy.  The currency is consistent (Pounds) even though England and Scotland both print their own versions.  And while Mike and I breezed between the countries England, Wales, and Scotland on train, we were never asked to show passports.

Our plan was to spend about two weeks traveling through Great Britain, starting in London, England and ending in Edinburgh, Scotland.  The map below shows the path we took and the stops along the way.  This post is a summary of our sixteen days in the UK through pictures, fun facts, and anecdotes.

Lazy Days in London

Upon arrival into London’s Heathrow airport, it was obvious we were no longer in the “Shire” known as Iceland.  Whereas the customs officer in Reykjavik greeted me as an old friend, I felt like a terrorist entering London.  After failing to come up with the exact address of my destination in central London, he threatened “Why should I let you into our country if you don’t know where you’re staying?”  Only after being forced to acknowledge this was my last and only warning, I was permitted to enter.  Moments later I was approached by a woman for a “random” questioning about my travel plans.  Meanwhile, my part-Lebanese and much more terrorist-looking pal Mike danced through customs.

We hopped on the Tube and headed toward East London.  Fortunately we were staying with a friend (Thanks Sharvan!) in his furnished corporate apartment (Thanks Barclays!).  Sharvan showed us around East London, walking by Brick Lane’s many curry houses and bars, prevalent street art, and hipster Shoreditch area.

The next day we explored Central London a bit, but our four days in London were mostly lazy.  We were still recovering from the past several nights engulfed in Reykjavik’s party scene and didn’t feel motivated to explore much.  It didn’t help that it rained almost every day.  In hindsight, the day I took these pictures would be our sunniest day in the UK.

Big Ben and the House of Parliament
Bobbies in front of the House of Parliament
Near Sharvan’s apartment is Boxpark Shoreditch, a pop-up mall where each store is a refitted shipping container. Brilliant!
East London is known for its street art.
Workers in the city taking a break to enjoy the sun outside St. Paul’s church
A view of Millennium bridge, a pedestrian bridge across the river Thames.
A violinist playing in front of the Tate Modern museum
St. James park near Buckingham Palace.

 A Not-So Bright Day in Brighton

From London, we took a day trip to Brighton, a city on England’s south shore.  If you ask an Englishman what Brighton is known for, they’ll say it’s the “gay capital of Britain”, and then they’ll look at you and your male friend in an assuming manner.  Maybe there is a gay neighborhood in Brighton, but we didn’t notice it.

The Royal Pavilion in Brighton. We gave up on boring poses weeks ago.

Our day in Brighton was rainy, windy, and cold, so I took hardly any pictures.  We walked around the shopping and cafe corridor known as the Laines and visited the Royal Pavilion (a former vacation home of royalty).  Brighton is also known for its nightlife, and we repeatedly heard “if you visited a Brighton pub every day for a year, you’d still have some to spare.”  After getting to the equivalent of January 5, we walked two miles in a cold drizzle back to our hostel.  Adding insult to injury, we booked beds at the Smart Sea View Brighton hostel, which is arguably the worst hostel ever.  I would suggest staying here only if you care to experience a triple-decker bunk bed.

I wouldn’t recommend the middle.

The next evening we headed back toward London for another night out.  We were fortunate to stay with my high school friend (Thanks Lem!) and experience a less-explored side of the city: South London.  Lem, her boyfriend Ben, and flatmate Clair showed us a proper night out.  Then cooked us breakfast the next morning!  They win for best hosts so far.

Windsor and Bath

To kickoff our two week jaunt exploring the UK, we stopped in Windsor to visit the castle and have an afternoon Sunday roast.

The shortest recorded street in Britain.
A proper Sunday roast in Windsor.

We finished our afternoon in Windsor by drinking a couple pints and watching the the first half of the England v. Italia Euro match (and marveling at how creative the English are with their expletives).  Afterward we hopped on a train west toward Bath.

In Bath, we visited the Roman Baths and explored the small city on foot.  It felt affluent and very touristy, but all-in-all it was a really nice place to visit.  Looking at the architecture, the Roman influence was obvious and so different than any other English town we visited.  The city was first established as a spa by the Romans around the natural hot springs, sometime around AD 60.

Imagine listening to an ambient classical guitar echoing Hotel California off a 7th century Abbey.
The Roman Baths.  The ‘no-peeing’ rule must not have been implemented yet.
Steam would flow up through the floor that once stood atop these bricks.
The Roman influence in Bath is clear.
Royal Victoria Park served as our “gym” one evening.

Hiking and Partying in Sleepy Llandudno, Wales

Two days later, we left Bath and headed north into Wales.  After only a couple hours of travel, we started to notice signs like this, which was our only indication we had entered Wales:

Vowels are overrated in Welsh.

We arrived into a sleepy coastal town called Llandudno just north of Snowdonia National Park.  We popped into a pub to grab dinner and some pints, and made friends with the bartender, Gwyn.  Gwyn eagerly offerred to drive us to Tryfan mountain in Snowdonia Park and hike it with us.  The next morning we found ourselves scrambling up this mountain with Gwyn and his girlfriend, Stacey.  Experiences like these remind me why I travel.

I’m no mountaineer, so this was by far the most intense mountain climbing I’ve done.  The day culminated with a night out with Gwyn, Stacey, and all their friends.  Thankfully there are no pictures from that night.

Our Welsh tour guides, Stacey and Gwyn.
Hiking up Tryfan in Snowdonia National Park.
This was pretty intense without any climbing gear. At this point, Stacey threatened to turn around and go back down.
Ride ’em, cowboy.
Mike, Gwyn, and me atop Tryfan.
On the way back down.
Another view of Snowdonia Park.

Northwest England’s Lake District

Leaving Llandudno, we headed north to the Lake District in Northwest England.  We stayed a night in Ambleside, a quaint but tourist-heavy town in the middle of the Lakes.  Another cloudy and wet day, but we took a day hike to a small peak anyway.

Ambleside, England. In the middle of the Lake District.
Lush Lake District.
It’s windy as hell up here.
A man and his mountain.

Edinburgh and the Scottish Highlands

When we reached Edinburgh, we lost some steam and started to experience travel burnout.  Using credit card points, Mike booked us a room at the Hilton for a couple nights of rest and relaxation.  Burnout equals few pictures and little sightseeing, but we did manage to hike up Arthur’s Seat in Holyrood Park to catch some fantastic views of the city.

Supporting their UK brethren hosting the Olympics this summer.
View of Edinburgh from Arthur’s Seat.
Surprised I still had the energy.

Next we headed to Inverness for a couple nights.  Inverness is famous for it’s neighboring Loch Ness and its monster Nessie.  We rented bikes and took a day trip to Loch Ness and back.

Biking along Loch Ness.
The Loch Ness Monster has deceived us all these years, it actually lives on land.
Just kidding, it still lives in the water.

Thanks for sticking with me through this monstrosity of a post.  My goal is to post shorter and more frequently in the future!

Next Up:

I’m wrapping up two weeks in Ireland.  On Monday, I head back to London for a week, then off to Vilnius, Lithuania to explore the Baltics!


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