Sojourning through Great Britain & Ireland
We'd been planning a trip to Great Britain and Ireland for a while. It is the home of my ancestral heritage. While there are unlimited places to explore, we carefully chose those which we felt had either great character or beautiful outdoor spaces. Here's where we went during our four week sojourn through England, Wales, Ireland, and Scotland during the months of May and June.
We began in London, England, where we spent our first five nights. Places we enjoyed included Covent Garden with its multitude of small shops and booths, perusing Harrods food halls, riding the 135 meter London Eye ferris wheel for spectacular views of London, touring the elaborate Houses of Parliament, taking in a musical in London's West End, enjoying a scenic and festive dinner cruise down the Thames, riding a historic red double-decker bus during tea time, and singing and dancing the night away at Mamma Mia the Party!
Mamma Mia the Party (@mammamiapartyuk) was absolutely phenomenal! An interactive dinner theater, they perform live music all around you from the band ABBA, tell a story similar to the musical Mamma Mia, and serve you a great Greek meal all at the same time. Whenever you're in London, you absolutely must give it a try!
While exploring Covent Garden, we stopped and ate at The Theatre Cafe, which is full of musical memorabilia from London's West End. Brigit's Bakery also has an excellent high tea during the afternoon. If you want something more fancy, try The Savoy or Harrods for tea. Just ensure you make reservations in advance!
London has wonderful corner pubs everywhere. The outside and inside of these pubs are adorned with character. Stop in for a pint or some hearty British food like meat pies, fish and chips, or cornish pasties. Some exceptional pubs for us included The Sherlock Holmes, The Wellington, and The Churchill Arms.
Tip: You order from the bar in most pubs we encountered, giving them your table number when you place your order. So make a note of your table number before you head to the bar.
Outdoor places worth exploring include Leicester Square, which is full of iconic literary and film statues like Mary Poppins, Paddington Bear, and Harry Potter. Hyde Park and Kensington Gardens are also worth a visit. Trafalgar Square has huge lion statues and water fountains, and St. James Park is full of waterfowl and adjacent to Buckingham Palace. The waterfront along the Thames is also quite nice, with picturesque Victoria Embankment Gardens, Whitehall Gardens, and Cleopatra's Needle.
Additional places you could explore include Westminster Abbey, Tower of London, Tower Bridge, The British Museum, Buckingham Palace, St. Paul's Cathedral, Warner Brothers Studio Tour - The Making of Harry Potter, the Prime Meridian at the Royal Observatory, and Shakespeare's Globe theatre where you could attend a tour or a live performance.
Aside from all of the places we explored and activities we enjoyed, my favorite experiences in London were speaking with and learning from the local people. I'd ask them anything. "What is your healthcare like?" "Why do you change Prime Ministers so often?" "Do you like the royal family?" "What do you think about the United States?" My husband's favorite was the general ethnic diversity of London.
Tip: Pace yourself in London. You could spend weeks there and see and do something new every day. Don't try to do everything. Carefully choose those places and activities which appeal to you the most.
Tip: We used the Visitor Oyster Card Pass to get around. It allowed us to take the underground (subway), water ferries, and double-decker buses anywhere we wanted to go. There is absolutely no need to drive around London.
Tip: Cash is unnecessary. We used our credit and debit tap cards everywhere we went.
Tip: Most importantly, purchase tickets or reserve seats in advance. London is packed with tourists. Add that to a local population of over 9 million people, and you will soon discover that things sell out quickly, with no admission tickets available for same day use.
SALISBURY, ENGLAND (STONEHENGE)
Next we rented a car in London and drove to Salisbury, home of the famous Stonehenge stone circle. Along the way we stopped at Windsor Castle, which is about an hours drive West of London.
Windsor Castle has been a royal residence since the 1100's. Queen Victoria spent the majority of every year at Windsor during her reign (1837-1901). As a child, Queen Elizabeth II lived here with her sister, Princess Margaret.
In Salisbury, we spent the night in the lovely Rollestone Manor. They greeted us with a delicious dinner and wonderful English breakfast the next morning. We had a splendid view of the countryside and farm next door, and their garden was a restful retreat.
The reason we spent the night in Salisbury is because we had early morning tickets for Stonehenge - The Stone Circle Experience. This experience allows you to walk amongst these iconic stone monoliths. You're not supposed to actually touch the stones, but they give you a full 45 minutes to enjoy being amongst them. They offer this tour before or after normal business hours. We were there at 6:45 am. It's an experience we highly recommend!
While in the area we also visited Avebury Manor and the Avebury Stone Circle. We found adjacent Avebury Village quite charming as well. We also enjoyed a nice tea and meal at Circles Restaurant, located between the National Trust Museum and gift shop.
Our next stop was the quaint seaside town of Minehead, England. I chose this location due to its proximity to Exmoor National Park, the West Somerset Railway, and Dunster Castle.
Exmoor National Park is home to the indigenous red deer. We went on a Red Stag Safari to try and spot the deer, which we did! Our safari guide, Andrew, also gave us a broad history of the area. We saw Exmoor ponies, many picturesque cottages, and our first stone clapper bridge as well.
Note: The national parks of England work differently than in the United States. Private land ownership is allowed, as well as activities like hunting. It was a bit shocking to us at first. They're more like a national recreation area than a preserved, protected wilderness ecosystem.
Our historic steam engine ride with West Somerset Railway was a nostalgic experience. I felt like I was Harry Potter heading to Hogwarts! The railway ends in Minehead in one direction, and Bishops Lydeard in the other. The entire trip takes approximately 1 1/2 hours to complete. We, however, got off at the Dunster station to enjoy Dunster Castle.
Dunster Castle was wonderful and so picturesque! The rooms reminded us of Hearst Castle in California. But the garden and grounds were by far our favorite. Babbling brooks with stone bridges, water wheels with stone grinders, and beautiful flowers and trees everywhere!
We also enjoyed a nice tea and scones in their tea garden outside of their tea room.
Note: Almost every tourist attraction in Great Britain has a tea room. It kind of goes hand in hand with sightseeing. It's like, "Would you like to enjoy a lovely spot of tea whilst you're here?" lol
While in Minehead we discovered some great places to eat at The Hairy Dog and Taj Mahal. For fish and chips, Seaview Takeaway seemed fairly busy. You'll find most shops and restaurants along The Avenue.
We drove from Minehead, England, to Penarth, Wales, just outside of Cardiff. Staying at the beautiful Holm House hotel, we thoroughly enjoyed Penarth Pier and pavillion, the restaurants and shops along The Esplanade, strolling through lush green Alexandra Park, and perusing the shops and restaurants in downtown. We wish we'd spent more time here. Simply charming.
We returned our rental car in Cardiff, Wales, and took a two hour Uber ride to Fishguard, where we boarded a Stena Line ferry and made our way to Rosslare, Ireland. From Rosslare we took a brief taxi ride to Wexford where we stayed at the charming Killiane Castle Bed & Breakfast. We enjoyed exploring their rural farm and meeting their friendly donkeys.
We also enjoyed walking through the town of Wexford, where we stumbled upon picturesque Selskar Abbey. Most businesses reside along Main Street. If you're fortunate, you can catch a live performance at the National Opera House as well.
We took the Irish Rail from Wexford to Dublin, staying at Buswells Hotel, which included a buffet and hot breakfast option and was full of charm. It's conveniently located close to public transportation and most things we wanted to explore in Dublin.
The temple bar district is a must see with all of its beautiful and historic pubs. Some of our favorites were the iconic Temple Bar Pub, The Quay's Bar, and Oliver St. John Gogartys. The pubs, in fact, are a main reason to come here. Iconic on the outside, warm and cozy on the inside. Many also had live music in the evenings.
I can't consume dairy products, so when we found non-dairy ice cream at Cloud Nine (@cloud_nine_dublin) I was in paradise!
Note: We noticed that Great Britain and Ireland had more vegan options commonly available than back home in the United States. With my dairy allergy, and my husband's aversion to pork and to meat in general, it was a welcome experience.
Additional places we enjoyed in Dublin included touring the Book of Kells and Long Room at Trinity College, Jameson Whiskey Distillery, and strolling through St. Stephen's Green Park. We also recommend attending the Celtic Nights dinner, music and dance performance. And you can take a light rail train to the beautiful seaside town of Dun Laoghaire, where you can take long walks along their pier, go on a boat ride, or grab some fish and chips.
Tip: We utilized the Leap Visitor Card to get around using public transportation. We also used the Dublin Express coach, or bus, to get to the airport. The Dublin Express is not covered by the Leap Visitor Card. But they had a tap card payment method available when we boarded the bus.
From Dublin, Ireland, we took a flight to Birmingham, England. From there we rented a car and drove approximately 30 minutes South to the quaint town of Stratford-Upon-Avon. This town is famous as the birthplace of English poet and playwright William Shakespeare. In fact, you'll find statues, mosaics, paintings, busts, and souvenirs of Shakespeare throughout the town.
We stayed in one of the character rooms at the charming White Swan Hotel, which has been used as an inn dating all the way back to 1560. One note of warning though, if you're tall like me, watch your head. We parked at the Rother Street parking garage (part of National Car Parks).
Utilizing our Shakespeare's Story Ticket day passes, we explored Shakespeare's Birthplace, the gardens at Shakespeare's New Place, and Anne Hathaway's Cottage. All were both historic and picturesque. There were guides along the way to answer any questions you may have. In fact, they were quite eager to share their knowledge with you.
We also enjoyed wandering around town, where we discovered many fine shops and restaurants such as El Greco Greek restaurant and Plantarium Cafe vegan cafe. And if you're a fan of Shakespeare and live theatre, you can try to catch a performance at the Royal Shakespeare Company.
We also took a short 9 mile drive to Warwick Castle. Here we enjoyed a self-guided castle tour. The grounds felt more like an amusement park or Renaissance fair, with shows such as The Falconer's Quest, Legend of the Trebuchet, and War of the Roses performed throughout the day. This makes it a great place to take children.
KESWICK, ENGLAND (THE LAKE DISTRICT)
We left Stratford-Upon-Avon at took a 4 hour drive North to the Lake District of England, our favorite part of England and favorite location of our entire trip! Along the way we stopped at the historic Tudor house of Little Moreton Hall.
Constructed over 500 years ago, Little Moreton Hall is a Tudor style manor located about an hour South of Manchester off of the M6 motorway. Its uneven walls and floors are due to settling of the heavy materials used in its construction. There's a moat around the property, full of friendly and hungry ducks. And, of course, there's a wonderful tea room cafe as well.
Tip: The British use post codes, like CA12 5DQ above, to find specific locations. Unlike a U.S. zip code, postal codes cover a much smaller area, almost down to a single building. Use them when driving with Google maps, and be sure to use the correct one as well.
The Royal Oak had some of the favorite meals of our entire trip, including a traditional Sunday roast, and the best hamburger my husband's ever had! Our room was small, but the location was great, right on the edge of the shopping plaza district in town. Service in the restaurant was also exceptional, including our breakfasts.
We walked through the shopping district down to Derwentwater Lake. We immediately knew this was our favorite part of England. So scenic and serene, it reminded us at times of Lake Como, Italy.
You can rent row boats, motor boats, kayaks, or stand-up paddleboards (SUPs) at Derwentwater Lake. You can also take a ferry boat ride around the lake, stopping at various locations close to hiking trailheads.
We also recommend enjoying an evening performance at the Theatre by the Lake. The adjacent Lakeside Cafe Restaurant not only serves delicious foods and fresh pastries, but also enjoys a commanding view of the lake as well.
There are many great hikes throughout the Lake District, including Aira Force Waterfall. With a distance of only 1.3 miles, and an elevation gain of only 456 feet, this loop type trail meanders along Aira Beck creek. The lush green forest alone makes this a wonderful hike that we surely recommend. And, in true British fashion, they have a tea room adjacent to the parking lot.
About 30 miles North of Keswick, in the town of Thurstonfield, lies the Cumberland Bird of Prey Centre. Here you can come face to face with owls, hawks, and vultures! I planned a half day here for my husband, as he loves birds.
We also visited nearby Castlerigg Stone Circle before sunset. It's a 1.7 mile walk, or 6 minute drive, East of Keswick. The views of the countryside from atop the hill were gorgeous! This stone circle is featured in the opening and closing scenes of my YouTube video (featured at the top of this article).
Another place we can highly recommend is the nearby town of Grasmere. This quaint little village, just 12 miles South of Keswick, is strewn with the most beautiful slate-covered buildings you'll ever find. We enjoyed a wonderful waterfront lunch at Grasmere Tea Gardens. We also recommend trying some delicious Sarah Nelson's Gingerbread.
Once we left the Lake District of England, we drove approximately 2 1/2 hours North to Edinburgh, Scotland. Our lodging was at an Airbnb just off of the Royal Mile shopping district. It had a fully equipped kitchen, livingroom, two bedrooms, a full bath, and underground parking.
Tip: There appeared to be many other Airbnb apartments available in this particular complex, as we noticed many other lock boxes and tourists while we were there. Just search for Old Tolbooth Wynd, Edinburgh EH8 8EQ, UK on Airbnb.
Our first full day in Edinburgh, Scotland, found us exploring the Palace of Holyrood House, the Royal Mile shopping district, and Edinburgh Castle. We encourage you to stray off of the Royal Mile (a.k.a. High Street, Lawnmarket, and Castlehill) as well.
The Palace of Holyrood House was once home to Mary Queen of Scots. It is still used by British royalty today. Queen Elizabeth II spent time there every Summer.
There has been a royal castle in Edinburgh since at least the reign of David I in the 12th century. Edinburgh Castle continued to be a royal residence until 1633. The castle itself is more like a small village, with the upper courtyard holding the actual palace. And, as per usual in Britain, there are tea rooms here as well.
Whilst driving around in Scotland, we stopped off of the M9 motorway to see the famous Kelpies sculptures! The Kelpies are 30 meter tall (98 ft) horse-head sculptures depicting kelpies (shape-shifting water spirits). The sculptures were designed by sculptor Andy Scott and were completed in October 2013. Lights come on at night making for some spectacular views at dusk. There's a tea room and gift shop nearby as well.
We drove to the town of North Berwick, about 25 miles East of Edinburgh, where we enjoyed walking along North Berwick Beach and perusing the shops and restaurants. But our primary reason for going there was to enjoy a Scottish Seabird Centre catamaran cruise around Craigleith and Bass Rock islands to spot puffins, guillemots, and gannets! This is a tour we can highly recommend! They have a cafe and gift shop at the centre as well.
Tip: Take a Dramamine tablet before you get on a boat. Although it's just a one hour tour, the seas were rough. Swells reached over 6 feet!
From North Berwick we took a short drive East (approx. 10 minutes) to Tantallon Castle. While now just ruins, Tantallon Castle was originally built in the 1300s by William Douglas. It sits dramatically perched on the cliffs overlooking the North Sea.
Our adventure culminated with the Strathmore Highland Games on the grounds of Glamis Castle. We witnessed hammer throwing, caber tossing, bagpipers, Highland dancing, and all sorts of racing events. They also had many food and craft booths around the games.
Tip: For a complete list of Highland game locations and dates, check out the Scotland Welcomes You website. Try to plan your visit to Scotland around one of these iconic events.
Glamis Castle was the birthplace of Princess Margaret and is still lived in today by Simon Bowes-Lyon, the 19th Earl of Strathmore and Kinghorne.
When our 4 week adventure through Great Britain and Ireland finally came to an end, we reflected on the beautiful locations, incredible activities, and wealth of knowledge we'd learned from so many wonderful people. Thank you to all who helped make our journey such a memorable one.
We encourage you to visit these emerald islands, full of beauty, history and culture. Discover for yourself why so many people, both past and present, call them home.
Additional helpful tips:
Outside of the big cities like London, Dublin, and Edinburgh, we did a lot of driving. There was no public transportation option for the places we wanted to explore.
Yes, you drive on the "wrong side" of the road. And yes, the steering wheel is also on the opposite side of the car. But I found that my brain quickly adapted. It also helps when you have another car to follow in front of you.
Roundabouts - Instead of intersections with stop lights, they primarily have roundabouts. A roundabout is a clockwise (in their case) circle where multiple roads meet. The vehicle to your right has the right of way. You'll see a Give Way sign, similar to our Yield signs in the United States. Their road signs were too complicated for me to read, so I just counted the number of "exits" (roads spurring off of the roundabout) and took the one Google Maps told me to take. "Take the second exit at the roundabout" means pass the first road and take the second.
Motorways - motorways (designated with the letter M) are like highways or freeways in the United States. I felt right at home on them. Once you leave the motorways, you'll find roads designated with the letters A or B. As you can guess, they get smaller as you go down the alphabet.
Many A and B roads travel through small towns. The speed limit was usually 30 mph here, 20 mph in school zones. They enforce their speed limits with traffic cameras, so everyone usually obeys the speed limit.
Country roads were the worst. Narrow, two lane roads with on-coming traffic, blind corners, and where the speed limit was usually 60 mph. There was no shoulder, and sometimes even a stone wall along the edge of the road. Oh, and large vehicles will gladly overtake part of your lane. Yeah, panic! But I only drove at a speed I felt comfortable, which was usually 40 mph, 20 around corners. When a large vehicle was approaching, I often squeezed as far left as I could (about 6 inches) and came to almost a complete stop. Don't let the tailgaters intimidate you. They can easily pass you when they get a chance. Drive at a speed that's comfortable for you. It's better to arrive at your destination safely.
Post codes - It's worth mentioning again, the British use post codes, like CA12 5DQ or EH39 4SS, to find specific locations. Unlike a U.S. zip code, postal codes cover a much smaller area, almost down to a single building. Use them when driving with Google maps, and be sure to use the correct one as well.
British food has a bad reputation. But it's not all that bad. It's your typical meat and potatoes dish. Beef, sausage, potatoes, carrots, peas, and the occasional roasted chicken or broccoli as well. They also have plenty of restaurants serving international cuisine, like Italian or Indian. You're likely to find vegetarian and vegan options too, with the exception of fish and chips takeaway shacks.
Why would I put this on here? They do speak English, afterall. Well, they use a lot of different words than the United States, and they occasionally have very thick accents. If you don't understand something someone said, they'll usually slow down and pronunciate more clearly for you. The thing that helped me the most? Watching all of the Harry Potter movies before we left! "Daft" "Snogging" "Excellent!" "Jumper" "Trainer" etc.
Everyone told us we were lucky while we were there. Sunshine and warm temperatures, often reaching into the 70s. We wish we'd brought our sandals and a pair of shorts. But of course, we'd planned for the worst, so we brought umbrellas, raincoats, and even thermal underwear. We only used the umbrellas and raincoats once, on our last full day in Scotland. It's best to be prepared for anything - rain or sun. Be prepared with clothing to match at least a bit of both.
As mentioned previously, cash was almost a complete waste of pocket space. We used our debit and credit tap cards everywhere. I ended up giving most of my pounds to street performers or the homeless. But even some of the street performers had QR codes you could scan to donate money. And if a card machine prompted me for USD or GBP, I always chose the latter. Your bank will give you a better conversion rate than the local vendor.