Sunday, May 16, 2010

Thoughts on the trip to the UK

Now that we are back home, I thought I would put together a few thoughts about the trip that may help those of you who are thinking of doing a trip there in the next few years.

Time of year to go
We went in April / May and we were lucky with the weather in that we had very little rain. There was quite often a strong cold and damp breeze from the north or east and most days had cloud. However, in most places we did not experience the crowds that summer brings. Airfare costs are significantly lower than summer as well. Oddly enough, the predictable colder weather helps in packing since you only have to take clothes suitable for cold weather. The biggest negative is that all the flowers are not blooming, but if you suffer from allergies, that can be an advantage.

Personally, I would not go to England in late June through July. There are over 60 million people (and a whole lot of tourists) and the crowding in the tourist attractions can be daunting. Driving a car on the narrow roads would be a nightmare with all the extra holiday traffic.

The locals reckon that September and October are the best months and they are probably correct. However, these are the best months in the US so take your pick.

Getting there
This time we flew Virgin Atlantic and we thought they did pretty well. When coming back, remember to get to the airport well over an hour in advance. Check in finished one hour before departure. Heathrow airport is huge and the walk from the checkin to the gate can be lengthy. We've flown British Airways in the past and they have been fine.

We got to London quite early, before 7am. If it is a weekday, don't rush to go into London because you will be fighting the hoards who are going to work. Wait until at least 9am.

Staying in London
We got one of those deals where you can get three nights in a London hotel added on for not much extra cost. The hotel we used (Central Park Hotel) was fine. Don't expect London hotels to be the same as US hotels, many of them are in very old buildings that were not designed to be hotels. As the sign says 'lower your expectations' and you will be fine. Many of the cheaper hotels include a continental breakfast where you fill up on breadrolls, toast and jam. Many will also offer the full English breakfast for additional cost, usually with eggs, sausage, bacon, tomato and maybe some other delicacy such as baked beans.

We were lucky this time in that we could check in when we arrived at 9am. Most don't allow checking till later in the day, for example after 2pm. You can leave your bags with them however.

Virgin handed out what I call 'goggles' which you slip over your eyes to help you sleep. These can also be useful in hotels to help you go to sleep if it is light outside. Remember to set your alarm for breakfast. London is 5 hours ahead.

The London Underground is a great way to get around, but it can be very crowded at times, particularly rush hour. If you have trouble walking up and down stairs, the underground is not for you since although there are escalators and lifts / elevators at some stations, most require that you do some flights of stairs.

The Oyster Card works well and effectively replaces the old "go as you please" card. We just got 20 pound cards which were enough for the three days with a little left over. When we went out to Heathrow on the return journey, it was easy to top up our nearly empty cards to the two pounds 40 pence required.

We saved a lot of money by buying our tickets from London to Yorkshire two to three months in advance. We paid 15 pounds each way against the cheapest fare the day before of 43 pounds each way. Go to this East Coast train site to see how it works. Because we were going to be in the north for three weeks, I booked the one way journey north and then three weeks later, booked the journey south.

Car rental is much the same everywhere, but in the UK, be careful about CDW and whether your credit card covers you. This time we used Hertz. One way rentals can sometimes be very expensive.

Driving is still a pain in most of the UK. Roads are often narrow with lots of traffic. Roundabouts are every where but they are more efficient than traffic lights. You will need a navigator who is good at reading maps and telling the driver where to go next. Petrol is very expensive at roughly $8 per gallon. Rent as small a car as possible to save on fuel costs and to fit on the narrow roads.

Changing money, credit cards and paying.
We used our regular PNC ATM card and it worked fine everywhere at all the ATMs we tried. Our limit appeared to be 100 pounds ($160).

Most credit card companies now tack an additional 3% surcharge (ripoff) on to the cost of any foreign transaction as well as the profit they make on the exchange rate. To avoid this, we used Capital One which does not charge the 3%. It worked fine.

Every pub and restaurant we went to accepted credit cards as do the supermarkets and petrol / gas stations.

Since I am a classical music fan, I wanted to go to a concert in London. I use Bachtrack to find out what is on in cities around the globe. It works very well and I booked for my concert well in advance. Do not wait until you get to London to buy your tickets. First, the event may be sold out. Secondly, you do so much walking that you will decide that it is easier to stay back in the hotel and watch TV. IF you really want to see something, get those tickets in advance so that you feel obliged to go.

The UK used to have a lousy reputation for food decades ago. Not any more. There is good food everywhere and it's not really that expensive. Take a walk in the supermarkets and you may be surprised by how inexpensive most ingredients are compared to the US.

Photos and Blogging.
Take spare batteries, a spare SD card and some form of backup. Every day, I transferred my photos for the day (usually over 100) to my little netbook. You don't want to lose these photos like I did a few years ago when my SD card totally died.

The Dell Netbook was very handy. It is very light weight and though it is not very powerful, I can type on the keyboard and it does most of what I want. There is oodles of disk storage. Wireless networking is available in most hotels so you can check email, look up stuff, and of course, do your blogging. One of the new Apple Ipads might work very well.

I really enjoyed the blogging of the trip. Yes it takes some time at the end or start of the day, but I found that my photo taking improved because I was constantly aware of the need to develop some sort of interesting story for the blog and the photos were needed to illustrate it. I found that it was useful to take a photo of the sign at the entrance to castles, churches etc so that I could easily remember where I was when I was going thru all the hundreds of photos.

I did not blog all the places we went to even though many of them deserved a blog entry. Pretty quickly I recognized that themed blogs like the one on the distilleries worked very well.

By the way, if you liked my photos, I took a basic photography course at Cecil Community College twenty-five years ago. It's probably one of the most useful courses I ever took because I learned how to take better photos and how to recognize when a good photo is available and how to compose it. Remember, walk a few yards and the view and composition changes.

The UK is a wonderful place to visit. It seems like every few miles you are seeing something that you had heard about but never quite knew where it was. It is a very concentrated country and absolutely beautiful in most places. The people are very friendly and though some of the accents can be difficuly to understand, that is just one of the fascinating aspects of the place.

Friday, May 14, 2010

Leeds Castle

We had never been to Leeds Castle, so we got in our rental car and headed off across the narrow and crowded roads of south east England. Actually the drive was not too bad, but as usual, roads are narrow and you have to be constantly alert. So we started along this walk to the castle and immediately noticed that the trees and flowers were much further advanced than further north.

A big old tree with growths on the trunk.

A lake along the way.

This white peacock kept turning around and around making it quite easy to take a photo. They probably train them from birth to do this. Well, perhaps.

It appears to be tiptoe through the tulip time in England.

So eventually, you get to see the castle off in the distance.

A cottage of sorts in the grounds.

Part of the moat.
The entrance to the castle gate.

As I entered through the castle gate, I was hurried through by some attendants so that these horses and a carriage could enter which carried a couple who were getting married. Heavens knows how much money was required to have your wedding and reception there at the castle, but I suspect I would have to go back to work to pay for it. Then again, if I were the groom on this occasion I would be more than happy to go back to work because the bride was distinctly ugly. Money was the attraction, I suppose.

The oval lawn in front of the castle. It was not quite as flat as a bowling green, but it was pretty close.

The main part of the castle with the lawn in front.

A hallway leading to the area of the castle that had been done in the older style. Like most houses, the castle had been much changed over the years.

The queen's bathing area. The curtain was for modesty.

It's difficult to tell, but the floor in this room is made with ebony.

A citrcular staircase leading upstairs to the floor which was redone by Lady Baillie who was the last owner to live in the castle.

Looking down into the courtyard.

The Board Room.

The room where Sadat and Dayan met in preparation for the Camp David Accords. The castle still hosts important meetings on occasion. In the background is a painting of Lady Baillie with her two daughters. Often when you look at paintings of the rich, you sometimes get the impression that the women were beaten with the ugly stick, but not with these two girls.

A painting of Lola Montez in Lady Baillie's husbands room. If you read her history, you would start to wonder why her painting was here in this room.

The castle wall and moat.

A music room. Actually it would make a pretty good room for my stereo system and it's one of those rooms that make you feel relaxed and comfortable to be in.

My next set of gloves with matching pickaxe.

The dining room that can also be hired for your wedding reception.

And so we wandered off back to the car park, past one of the famous views.

It was very difficult to read the inscriptions on the grave stones, but they appear to be for the dogs.

Overall, I would say that Leeds Castle is worth visiting if you are in the vicinity, but like most castles, it's a oncer.

Friday, May 7, 2010


Our friends live in Sleights just outside Whitby. Each time we visit them we take a tour of this very interesting town.

Whitby's most famous son, Captain James Cook who amongst many other voyages sailed up the east coast of Australia.

Here he is gazing out to see on the north side of the harbour. The first time we went to Whitby, it was a miserable, wet, cold and windy day. In other words, normal for Whitby. My comment was that it was days like this that made Cook go to Australia.

The entrance to the harbour. Whitby was at one time an extremely important port on the north east coast of England. The downgrading of the train service to the town in the 50's caused a drop off in the volume of shipping. Very few fishing vessels remain.

The town itself with the ruined Whitby Abbey on top of the opposite hill.

The foreshore just north of Whitby. If you click on the picture you can see little bathing huts down near the beach.

More bathing huts. It amazes me that these relics are still used.

The half finished Crescent, built by George Hudson. He was ruined by the exposure of his fraudulent dealings and his Crescent was not finished. He was the 'railway king' of the time.

Whitby's main industry is now tourism. Here is an old steam bus that puffs around the town.

The inner harbour with a swing bridge.

When you see a composition like this, you have to take the photo. Why they had to bend over to take their photos was beyond me.

The south cliff which is gradually eroding. Photos from 100 years ago show the cliff was probably extended out a further 100 yards. Actually, this cliff is referred to in Whitby as the east cliff since the harbour faces north.

I think we have been to Whitby about five times and this was the first time that the weather was good enough for us to venture out onto the north (west) pier. It was a lovely sunny day, but you still needed your jacket.

The outer extension to the pier which is designed to make the water in the main harbour more calm. As waves come into the outer section, some of the energy is disipated by having some of the wave escape through this gap. There is a simialr gap on the other pier. It all works very well and would need to since the waves can get very high in a storm.

The decking on the outer part of the pier. The boards are laid lengthways and this makes the decking difficult to walk on. It reminds me of walking on railway lines.

The outer pier on the south (east) side. Note that the bridge connecting this outer part ot the inner part is missing. It was washed away in a storm.

One of only two vessels that we saw using the harbour entrance. This is the old rescue boat that is now used for pleasure jaunts out to see. Note that the boat's skipper is not wearing a shirt! He must have layers of blubber on him.

A small version of the Endeavour that is used for pleasure trips for tourists. It motors out to sea and is back in about 25 minutes.

Whitby reminds me of the boardwalk towns of Maryland and New Jersey. Not much in the way of rides, but plenty of junky shops and fast food.

The south (east) bank. The south side has more of the tourist shops while the north side has more of the shops and banks you would normally see in a town of this size.

The inner harbour is quite calm. Compare to the waves outside in earlier photos.

Old hall built above a market.

Photo in a shop window of what it looked like 100 years ago. Now it serves as an outdoor cafe.

The houses go right up to the harbour's edge. Many of the houses in this area are used as holiday cottages.

An old Methodist Church used as a shop. The organ and even the pulpit still survive.

Tiling at the entrance to the former church.

Why one would want so much soap is beyond me, but obviously there is a market for stuff like this.

The south side is loaded with old pubs.

This one is right next door to the prior one. In summer the streets are very crowded.

One of the culinary delights of Whitby. Fortune's Kippers.

Kippers in the smoke house. The smell of the smoke (from oak) is quite noticeable over thirty yards away and I would hate to live in the area.

My kipper at dinner. These Whitby kippers are better than the ones from Craster mentioned in another blog. They really are quite delicious but I find I need to wear reading glasses so that I can deal with the bones.

A curious house that subsided on one side. It is now used as a holiday cottage.

The southern (eastern) pier.

You may notice that there are waves at right angles to the waves coming in from the sea. These extra waves have bounced off the southern (eastern) pier. It makes for very turbulent water.

The northern (western) side of the harbour. This is the wealthy side of town.

The 199 steps leading up to the old Whitby Abbey. The road to the right was the old road to Scarborough. I have climbed the steps on a prior visit to Whitby and decided I could give them a miss this time.

English seagulls are absolutely enormous.

Whitby is well worth a visit if you are in the area. From what our friends tell us, it is a real zoo in summer, but then that applies to all seaside towns.