WHIRLWIND BRITAIN

In today’s hectic world, you want to vacation, you want to see all those wonderful places that you’ve seen on TV and in the movies -- or read about -- or heard about, you’re open to new experiences, and besides, travel broadens the mind. So you look at your schedule, and you’ve got a week to travel. OK, now the first question, where to go?

Well, you only have a week, and things are pretty stressful right now, you don’t need any more stress, better go where they speak English. OK, Australia...nah, too many poisonous snakes, and besides, the flight time is way too long. OK, that’s it! We are going to Britain! But beware, a week in Britain is hectic in its own way, and you have to love to drive. Distances that would take you three hours in the States will take five on Britain’s roads, and drives of between six and seven hours are the norm on this whirlwind tour.

First things first. Do you know anyone there? A cousin, your ex-significant other’s sister? After all, you don’t want to spend too much money. The answer is most likely no-one, because even though the Brits are friendly enough, its not as if they are going to let you in the house. If they were going to do that, they would have opened a bed and breakfast. Those that do open a bed and breakfast are the cream of the British hospitality crop, and any trip to Britain should make extensive use of these inexpensive B&Bs.

Getting to Britain should only be done one way, and that is to fly British Airways. The stewards and stewardesses have PBS accents, the food and service are great, and all the wine and cocktails are free. Little tip #1: join the British Airways Executive Club. Its free, and they take better care of you. In addition, you get better car rental deals and upgrades from Hertz Rent-a-Car. If you are under 26, contact STA Travel and they will get you a youth ticket for a substantially reduced fare, and all your Executive Club benefits still apply.

Make sure that you fly into Heathrow, not Gatwick Airport. Gatwick is mighty far from anything that you want to see, and Heathrow is a much easier place to go. Fly on a red-eye Sunday night flight that gets you into London early Monday morning and you will avoid the crowds at Heathrow Airport.

Next problem, how to get from one B&B to another? Rent a car. You can rent a car in Great Britain at the age of 18, as opposed to 25 here in the States. “But they drive on the wrong side of the road!” It’s really not that bad. Trust me. Britain does have an extensive bus and rail network, but these are only useful to the time laden and patient traveler. The only way to get around Britain and see everything that you need to see in one week is to rent a car, and besides, it’s kind of fun swerving around avoiding the eyes of the kindly looking gentleman out walking his dog as you try to figure out whether you should hit the dump truck heading towards you, the 700 year old stone wall on either side of you, or just shut your eyes and hope.

Having said that a car is the way to go, let me now issue a warning. Driving in Britain is not for the faint of heart. I have seen some dog house doors wider than British roads. Then again, I have seen some dogs bigger than British cars. The Mini Cooper is more of a glorified tricycle than a car. Little tip #2: when renting your car, put it on your American Express card.

If you don’t have an American Express card, get one now. Don’t leave the country without it. American Express offers free car insurance up to the value of the rental car if you rent with the card. An invaluable benefit, as I discovered when I took the entire front end off my car in Talbet, Scotland. American Express bailed me out, and I was back on the road in a new car within four hours, and it didn’t cost me a dime.

All right, you know how you are getting to Britain, how to get around when you get there, and where to stay. Now all you need to know is that you are going to a country where they speak British, not Webster’s Standard English. Shag is not exactly a dance where you’re going, and asking for a napkin in a small village pub might get you thrown out on your ear. Let’s go.

Just grab your luggage, (much more easily located if your bags have Executive Club tags) and head to the Hertz desk, where the reservations for the car that you made last week have been lost, but don’t worry, they will give you a car.

Walk outside and grab the shuttle Hertz shuttle bus over to the car park. (Not parking lot.) And once again, don’t worry, your driver is not kidnapping you. Heathrow is BIG, and it is about a half-hour drive over to the Hertz depot.

At last, you are in your car, ready to go, the open road, the wind in your hair, the music! Go slow. That big yellow gate that says “DRIVE ON. GATE WILL AUTOMATICALLY OPEN,” doesn’t. Now at last the truth comes out. Beneath the royal trappings, the excellence of the BBC and the London stockbrokers, Great Britain is really a third world. A man will come charging out of a little shed at the last minute to open the gate by hand, a grueling process for him, and one that goes even slower than your car.

Once past this first hurdle, make your way to the Motorway. Any road in Britain marked M anything is your friend. Big, modern, divided highways that run the length of England, the motorways and the dual-carriageways (two lane divided roads) are a Godsend as you attempt to pilot your vehicle on the wrong side of the road with cars coming straight for you.

And now, the grand tour of Britain. You realized some time ago that one week wasn’t enough to do Ireland too, so England, Scotland and Wales are your destinations, not necessarily in that order. Seven days of pure, unadulterated driving hell, that will be worth every minute of it, I assure you.

Every American has a strange feeling on coming to England for the first time. Its almost like a homecoming. From birth we are saturated with Britishisms. The rolling green hills spotted with sheep and cows are the ones idolized in picture books. The wind in the craggy cliffs whisper King Aurthur’s name, and the sense of tradition and history creeps up you like a slow tide.

In America, the oldest feeling you can get of our civilization is about 350 years, down in Williamsburg, VA, or up at Plymouth Rock. Britain has pubs that are twice as old, and the stone henges are from another age entirely.

First, get out of London. Go southwest, and head towards Salisbury. It is here in Sarum (the old clerical abbreviation for Salisbury) that the earliest residents of Britain lived and worked, played and died, and covered the bodies of their great men with huge, chalk barrows. When you get to Salisbury, go first to Stonehenge. You can’t touch the stones anymore because they are all roped off, but the sight of the huge circle of bluestones and sarsens where the Druid astronomers made their sacrifices is one of the world’s seven ancient wonders. At first glimpse it is rather disappointing, as it just sits incongruously next to the highway, but take the time to get out of the car and walk around it once or twice. Even in its dereliction it stands as a monument to man’s dedication, ingenuity and quest for knowledge.

Back in the car and head for the village of Avebury. Although not well-known, the Bronze-Age stone ring at Avebury is the largest stone ring in Britain, and as such it cannot be roped off like Stonehenge. It is here that the modern day descendants of the Druids hang out and do their thing. What their thing consists of I am not yet sure, but it involves seeking force lines between the stones, listening to the Rolling Stones, and getting stoned. They’re fun to talk to, and if you’re lucky they’ll check your aura.

The spire of Salisbury Cathedral beckons you from Avebury, and it is to the cathedral that you should now head. It will most likely still be under reconstruction, but that doesn’t affect the feeling of the ancient church. The spire is a marvel of medieval engineering, actually held in place by steel bands wrapped around the outside of stones. Some of the pillars supporting the cathedral have begun to bend, and a picture of this might be worthwhile, before they destroy it through reconstruction. One of the original copies of the Magna Carta is kept here in Salisbury Cathedral, and can be viewed for a small (£1) donation to the church.

Have a cup of tea, relax on the lawn and look around. This too is one of the wonders of the world, and you can touch this one. Take a walk up onto the downs, and stand on one of the ancient barrows. Each of these magnificent barrows is a burial mound for one of early Britain’s most important men. Perhaps he fended off some invasionary force, or was a great hunter. We will never know who he was, but the barrow stands as a testament to his greatness. Somehow, he contributed to the land you see around you; he helped build it, and 6000 years later, his massive tombstone reaffirms his love for the land you are standing on.

Back to the car and head north. The next stop on our whirlwind tour of Britain is the City of Dreaming Spires. Oxford, characterized for years as the town and gown, is a strange mix of city and university, where 1992 AD and 1249 AD actually live in harmony, with just a few sour notes.

The best B&B in Oxford is down at the south end of town, on the Abingdon Road. It’s called Lakeside; the price is right, the breakfast is great, and the neighborhood spectacularly British. Check in and walk into town to grab some dinner. Restaurants abound, from the traditional quick meal available at Carfax Fish & Chips to the unusual but delicious food at the Malaysian Munchy Munchy. There are no bad restaurants in Oxford, but Brown’s is an exceptionally good one.

The walk to Brown’s is about 20 minutes, straight up the same road that Lakeside Guest House is on. This road begins as Abingdon but goes through several transformations before ending up as Woodstock, where Brown’s is located. Brown’s is an Oxford institution, and it is here that Oxford students come in the afternoon to have a cup of cappucino. Back to the B&B for some sleep. Southern England? Been there, done that. End day one.

If you’re up early the next day, a walk across the meadows and down to the river is a great way to start the day. Walking along the Cherwell where the Oxford University boathouses are situated really gives one a sense of Oxford. All around you above the trees are the “dreaming spires,” the river flows slowly along, and you might even catch sight of the magnificent swans that patrol the area. Head back to the B&B for breakfast.

Now its time to see Oxford. First, go up Carfax Tower. The oldest structure in Oxford, the tower offers an incomparable view of the city, which if you have timed your climb right, combines the spires and a bird’s eye view of the rush hour traffic (yes, even here) into an interesting picture.

Next, head over towards University College. Although this is not the most beautiful college, it is the oldest (rumored to have been founded by King Alfred) and it is here that one can get a real sense of history. The beautiful library and memorial to alumni Percy Shelly should not be missed here. As far as colleges go, the only other one worth the effort to see in this short time span is Christ Church.

Called simply “The House” by its students, Christ Church is the city’s largest and most striking college. Christ Church also boasts the Great Meadows, where 700 years drop away and you can wander in an unspoiled garden between the ancient buildings. And of course, Tom Tower, widely called Christ Church’s phallic symbol by Oxford students, is a must see.

The Bodlien Library is magnificent, and so too is the Radcliffe Camera. A visit to these buildings is an essential part of any trip to Oxford, but beware of huge groups of French school children. Just when you have found the perfect spot for a serene picture of an Oxford student, a high-pitched cry of “Oh, la, la la la la” will ring out behind you, the odor of Brie surrounds you, and your wonderful picture turns out to be a blurred shot of a nose of someone you don’t know.

Before you leave Oxford, head down to Magdelen (pronounced “Maudeleyne”) Bridge and rent a punt for an hour or so. As you gently pole along the river, think to yourself that Oxford students do this for free every afternoon, and you could easily spend the entire afternoon sliding along the riverbanks, gazing up the meadows at the venerable colleges.

But you have things to see and do, and it is back on the road for the drive to Wales. To begin with, you must first get your car from the south end of Oxford to the north end where you can pick up the motorway. I would tell you how to do it, but I wouldn’t want to take away that sense of accomplishment you will feel when you find it out for yourself.

Once out of Oxford, head for north Wales. South Wales is nice too, but the misty mountain tops of north Wales are calling you. Trust me, they are. You just can’t hear it yet. Head first for the tiny place known as Pen-y-Pass, at the base of Mt. Snowdon.

Mt. Snowdon is that rarity of places, a tourist trap that is unsurpassed in beauty and worth the crowds. Park your car at the base of the mountain in the tiny car park at Pen-y-Pass, and start walking up the Pyg Trail. Three hours later, after a fairly easy climb alongside crystalline waterfalls and blue mountain lakes, you are standing at the top of Wales highest mountain. The view is incredible, and on clear days the paragliders are hovering high above you, silently gazing down on the mountain.

To get down you can go the way you came, or you can take the more adventurous route across the ridgeway, which is a narrow path with thousand foot drops on either side. It can be a bit harrowing, but maybe the fog will come in and you won’t be able to see the dropoff. For those of you who like the views but not the climb, there is the Snowdon Mountain Railway which will take you roundtrip for £7, (about $14). Once down, hop back in the car and head west, for its time to see one of the world’s most stunning castles.

On the Welsh coast stands Castle Caernarfon, an imposing edifice which is the only place I have ever seen which does justice to the word castle. It is an ancient fortress, with crumbling, moss covered walls, and dazzling views of the sea and of the land surrounding it. Beware of the hoary stone, which becomes quite slippery in the fog. The sight of you sliding rapidly down a moss covered stairwell screaming obscenities to seagulls is perhaps not the picture you want passed around in some ryokan at a Japanese family reunion.

Heading back east you can go through the town of Betwys-y-Coed, one of those undeniably cute little towns that retains its charm in spite of the plastic Welsh dragons and T-Shirts proclaiming “Wales: Home of King Aurthur” which are on sale everywhere. A good place to grab a bite to eat, Betwys-y-Coed is a great place to sit and chat with a local, who will teach you a few words of Welsh and then vehemently warn you against ever attempting to learn the lyrical language.

The town of Llangollen hides one of the International Youth Hostel Federation’s best kept secrets. The Llangollen Youth Hostel is in a restored 18th century mansion, with a lovely drawing room and an absolutely marvelous setting. Set high on a hill overlooking the Welsh country side, the hostel is a wonderfully relaxing place to spend the night. I rarely recommend youth hostels, but this one is superb. The rooms are comfortable, the people are wonderful, and the price is right. Day two ends with the sound of sheep gently baaing in the night, and the smell of fresh mountain air.

Up bright and early for a hearty breakfast, and then it’s off to the Lake District. Arguably England’s most romantic area, the lakes were home to Samuel Taylor Coleridge and William Wordsworth, whose life revolved around the over 180,000 miles he walked in the district, savoring its beauty.

As Britain’s largest national park, the 880 square miles of the Lake District offer some of the most dazzling views in England. Head up to Tarn Hows, near Windermere, to get a shot of the world’s most photographed lake. Then head off to do the circle drive, a road which takes you through tiny towns, farms, and along hedgerows which have stood for generations. If you are feeling adventurous, take the single track road which goes up and over Hardknott Pass, one of the most challenging and rewarding drives in Britain.

In Windermere is a marvelous guest house called Fir Trees. Run by Americans Ira and Eileen Fishman, this is a perfect place to drop off your car and then take off on foot. The rest of the day in the Lake District should be spent as Wordsworth spent his time, straying about, “Voluptuously through fields and rural walks/And ask no record of the hours.” One particularly extraordinary walk is the hike up Scafell Pike, England’s highest mountain. From the top of Scafell, the lakes spread out before you “like spokes from the nave of a wheel,” as Wordsworth said, reflecting shyly back at the sky.

Lake Windermere is one of the deepest and coldest lakes in Britain, so I wouldn’t recommend swimming in it, but a boat trip out on the lake is the perfect way to relax in the late afternoon. Head back to Fir Trees for a comfortable stay and a wonderful breakfast before heading up to Scotland in the morning.

Heading north you will eventually come to Ben Nevis, Scotland’s highest mountain. A good place to drop your car is the Glen Nevis Youth Hostel, but don’t stay the night here; the proprietor, a crusty old man, will hold your hostelling card hostage until you vacuum or scrub some fungal encrusted area. From the hostel it is about a three hour hike up Ben Nevis. The climb is a bit more challenging than the one up Mt. Snowdon and Scafell, but if you climbed those you can make this hike too, and then you will have climbed the three highest mountains in Britain. The view from here encompasses all of Scotland it seems, with the lochs glittering in the distance and the sharp faces of cliffs gazing sternly down on the hardy people of the clans.

North and west of Ben Nevis is the Isle of Skye, a picturesque island filled with thatched huts and wool sweater weaving elderly Scotch ladies. At the northern tip of Skye lies Dunvegan Castle, where the chief of the MacLeod clan, John MacLeod of MacLeod still lives. The castle is open to the public, and is a remarkable glimpse into the life of a nobleman in medieval and modern Scotland.

The dungeon however, is one of the cheesiest plays to tourists that I have ever seen. Gazing down into the old pit, you can see two extremely fake plastic prisoners, while an audio tape plays a man’s voice wheezing “food, water, please, cough, cough, food, water, please, cough, cough.” Oh well, the rest of the castle is authentic, and hardly any tourists are here. The gardens are pleasant, and the stark view out to the windswept, icy sea is one that still haunts me.
Heading back to the mainland, up north on the coast lies the town of Gairloch. Almost completely bereft of tourists, Gairloch is a pretty little town that hugs the edge of the Scottish coast. The scenery is dazzling, and the Scottish Heritage Museum is a quaint little place filled with relics of the elder days. The town is surrounded on all sides by either water or unspoiled national parkland, and it is easy to lose yourself in the fog clad highlands, and forget about the fact that you only have three more days to see the rest of Britain.

Spend the night in Gairloch, I guarantee it is one of the most peaceful nights you will ever spend anywhere. The Scottish Highlands can work their magic here, and put you under their spell.

Inverness is Scotland’s busiest tourist trap, where pictures of Nessie and artist’s renditions of the monster are more common than dirt, but Loch Ness is one of those places you’ll always regret not having been to if you forego the visit there. Driving along the edge of the loch it is easy to see how legends of a monster can be sustained. The wild, rugged coastline and the sinister looking water conjure up pictures of dinosaurs and sea monsters.

Leaving the Scottish Highlands and heading down the east coast towards Edinburgh gives one a completely different impression of Scotland. The jagged cliffs of the west coast are gone, replaced with gently rolling hills and more industrial towns. Edinburgh itself is one of Britain’s most romantic cities, with it’s huge, brooding castle overlooking the ancient city.

The castle itself is a bit touristy, with signposts everywhere and plugged up cannons, but standing on the watchtower with the wind whipping by really gives one a look into the past, when this was Scotland’s seat of honor. Walking along the Royal Mile beneath the castle, you can still find turn-of-the-century shops run by old men that have avoided the touristy look and still serve tea while you browse. Ordering a Scotch on the rocks in one of the tiny pubs can result in a half-hour wait as an employee runs up the street to get ice. But such opportunities give you the chance to really chat with the owner, and learn some of the local history with feeling.

There are innumerable B&Bs in Edinburgh, but Roselea Guest House on Mayfield Road is by far the most delightful. The rooms are well appointed and the hosts are cheerful and serve a great breakfast. Roselea is within walking distance of the castle, but is far enough away from the center of town to avoid the main tourist areas.

While in Edinburgh, try to visit Holyroodhouse, the seat of Mary Queen of Scots’ court, and also try to get to the Museum of Childhood, a enchanting collection of toys, games and various pursuits of children throughout the years.

Heading south the next morning, the drive to York takes you through some beautiful old farming communities, and finally through the old city walls into York itself. York is one of the last places in England where the old fortified city walls are almost complete, and driving through them is a curious mix of ancient and modern. Park the car as fast as you can and get out and walk around. Heading into the center of town on foot is one of the most agreeable in-town walks anywhere in Britain. The people are friendly, the roads are small, and a feeling of Merry Olde England can be felt more strongly here than in any other city.

York Minster Cathedral is the crowning glory of York, and is indeed one of the most splendid cathedral churches in Europe. Eating lunch outside in the square listening to the minstrels is a great way to spend the afternoon. Unfortunately, a wizened old man selling the York Evening Press in the opposite corner of the square inconveniently hollers “PRESS!” every minute or so, but you get used to him and if you holler “PRESS!” back at him every once in a while you will even see him smile.

Skipping by the Jorvik Viking Center, Nottingham itself is a nice enough place, known mostly for its underwear factories, and is not particularly exciting. Sherwood Forest contains the infamous Sherwood Forest Center, where you can get green plastic hats and capes for your child, as well a miniature bow and arrow, while you wander the ever so romantic paved paths through the forest.

The ancient paths that used to wind alongside the boles of the largest trees in Britain have been replaced by gigantic, straight graveled paths with handrails and little signs telling you that “Little John Might Have Slept Here!” Go and see the trees, and then just go away. Spend the night in Nottingham, for your whirlwind tour is coming to an end, but you still have Cambridge and London to go.

The drive to Cambridge is fairly short, so you will be able to spend a good couple of hours there. Cambridge is what most people expect to see when they get to Oxford. Instead of building up and getting spires, Cambridge built out, and its huge sprawling colleges and brilliant gardens are overwhelming. The gardens of Trinity College are so magnificent that they must be seen to be believed, to use the old cliché. Kings College on the other hand, is so architecturally dominating that you almost have to be an architecture student to truly appreciate it. Its varying styles, sheer size and complexity inspire you to become a Cambridge student just as the Bodlien Library inspires you to study in Oxford. And now, the last part of the trip looms ahead like a storm on the horizon.

Take your car back to Heathrow, and take the tube into London. Although you can drive in London, (I did it) the experience is best left undiscovered. I learned bad things about myself when I drove in London, and uncovered a whole dark area of my personality that had been suppressed since my ancestors quit having to fight sabertooth tigers for sleeping space.

I won’t even begin to tell you where to go in London or what to see. London is one of those cities that you can spend a year or a day in, depending on what you like to do. Buckingham Palace, the Tower of London, Covent Garden, Hyde Park, Soho, all are spectacular and all are vastly different. Buy a multi-zone day pass for the London Underground and go nuts. Britain is a country of contradictions to tradition, of ale and arses. Most people fall in love with this country, and you probably will too. Do the whirlwind tour to get a taste of this ancient land, but the rest of the bottle should be sipped over the course of many years. This trip is just the first in a series of journeys that you will make again and again.