Friday, 21 June 2013

Kent England

This Trip: FROM 2013.05.25 TO 2013.05.27

The 27th of May, Monday, was one of the very few bank holidays that come immediately before or after a weekend in 2013. A 3-day trip from 25 to 27 May to Kent was just perfect. We went on this circular route from London to Down House, and then Bayham Abbey on the way to Dover where White Cliffs of Dover and Dover Castle were must-see, from Dover to Canterbury via Walmer Castle and Deal Castle, and finally got back to London via Rochester Castle and Upnor Castle.

From the car rental location at Westfield Shopping Center in Shepherd’s Bush we departed on Saturday morning for Down House, Home of Charles Darwin located only 35 km southeast. It was already midday when we arrived, however, as it was such a pain to drive through the congested traffic in London. Luckily, weather was very nice though. Home of Charles Darwin, one of the major visitor attractions in the South East, is a unique museum of history of science that tells how Darwin developed his ideas. Equally interesting were glimpses we got into the life of the Darwins in the family rooms. We also strolled through the extensive gardens that so inspired this great scientist. For those with an interest in science and evolution, this is a place for a great day out in Kent. Next, we continued to head southeast to Bayham Old Abbey, impressive ruins that include much of the 13th to 15th-century church, the chapter house, and a picturesque 14th-century gatehouse. This abbey was quite an extensive attraction definitely worth a visit, especially as we did not get annoyed by a crowd of tourists in that remote area. We were approaching Dover at around 18:00. There was no time to lose, we managed to park the car somewhere in Saint Margarets Bay and went on that scenic coastal trail. We were so happy we could take enough nice pictures of the beautiful White Cliffs of Dover under bright sunshine and also at twilight. By the end of this wonderful day we had a delicious seafood dinner at Cullins Yard at the marina, before settling in our accommodation nearby.

Dover Castle is probably the most popular attraction in Dover. There were just too many tourists. Even though we departed early at half past nine before the castle opened at ten with the aim of beating the queue, we finally ended up at the end of a long queue, after having the car parked in the very crowded parking 10-minute walk away. Known as the “Key to England”, Dover Castle spectacularly situated above the White Cliffs of Dover is a magnificent castle which has guarded shores of England from invasion for 20 centuries. Main things to see included darkly atmospheric Secret Wartime Tunnels and colorful richly-furnished Great Tower. This is a huge castle, so a minimum of 4 hours is required for a thorough visit. Just 15-minute drive northeast there are Walmer Castle and Gardens. Originally designed as part of a chain of coastal artillery defences, Walmer looks more like a big beautiful house nowadays, in contrast to the military Dover, as it evolved into the official residence of the Lord Warden of the Cinque Ports in 1708. We enjoyed a leisurely stroll in the sunshine in the Broadwalk, The Kitchen Garden, The Queen Mother’s Garden, etc. Another 5-minute drive north we arrived in Deal Castle, one of the finest Tudor artillery castles in England among the earliest and most elaborate of a chain of coastal forts, including Walmer. Instead of going straight to Canterbury, we headed north to Broadstairs where we stopped by Joss Bay to admire the views of White Cliffs of Kent. White Cliffs together with its shadows under sunshine looked gorgeous.

On Monday morning we checked out from our hotel in Canterbury but left the car parked there, as we anticipated difficulty parking the car around the city center nearer to tourists attractions. The decision was proven right, firstly because parking in the city, if any, costs quite much, and secondly Canterbury is a compact city best explored on foot. It was a sunny nice day, again. We visited St Augustines Abbey, a great abbey founded shortly after AD597 by St Augustine and originally created as a burial place for the Anglo-Saxon kings of Kent. The impressive abbey is situated outside the city walls and is sometimes missed by visitors. Next, we walked into the city center where attractions included Canterbury Cathedral, Canterbury Castle, and Westgate Gardens. We left this small pretty city at around 13:00 and headed northwest to Rochester, where we visited Rochester Castle, an imposing fortress with a complex history of destruction and rebuilding. The Norman tower-keep of Rochester Castle consisting of three floors above the basement was built about 1127. In 1215, garrisoned by rebel barons, the castle endured an epic siege by King John. Rebuilt under Henry III and Edward I, the castle remained as a viable fortress until the sixteenth century. On the top we had bird eye’s views over the city of which River Medway and White Cliffs looked spectacular on that beautiful day. We also visited Rochester Cathedral, before departing for Upnor Castle, which was not as fascinating as Rochester Castle but conveniently situated nearby. It was a very happy weekend trip with excellent weather.

Saturday, 15 June 2013

Britain in Springtime

This Trip: FROM 2013.05.04 TO 2013.05.18

After we had had enough of the freezing weather and short daylight for months, we went on this 2-week perfect journey in the lovely springtime with a route looping around Britain from London to York, from York to North West England where Lake District National Park was a must-see, and then to Scottish Highlands including Isle of Skye, and the Lowlands including Edinburgh and the Lothians, and finally Durham City back in England on our way back to London. 

YORK The Capital of North Yorkshire

Although travelling by Britain’s National Rail can be costly, it is still the best option when tickets at reasonable price are available by booking in advance, and when the time required for the journey is just two-thirds or even half of what it takes on a road trip, not to mention how tiring it could be to drive for hours. We went from London to York by train in early May, with a ticket costed GBP39 per adult. We could have had it cheaper.

A 1.5-day stay in the City of York was just right for us. As York is known as a walled city, the wall itself is an attraction, especially the part containing Micklegate Bar. Going between the accommodation and the city center we enjoyed walking on the city wall from which we had bird’s eye views of the city. York Minster is probably the iconic attraction of York, but the admission charge is GBP10, which we found overpriced for a visit to a church. We paid the visit free at 17:15 instead, by claiming we were there for the Evensong. By the end of the day we also found St Mary’s Abbey next to Yorkshire Museum. Not only is this Abbey in ruins a beautiful attraction, it is also free of charge. Never had I read about such Abbey on any major websites of York tourist information, which tend to feature paid attractions. We visited Clifford’s Tower the first thing next morning. The Tower is the keep of the former York Castle, a fortified complex comprising, over the last nine centuries, a sequence of castles, prisons, law courts and other buildings on the south side of the River Foss. The top of the Tower also overlooks City of York. The next stop was National Railway Museum. We planned to finish the visit in two hours, but it finally took us four hours to explore all those Britain’s trains of different eras. The museum is just kind of huge. We spent the rest of this last day in York wandering around the vibrant city center. There are other paid attractions that can be interesting if you are travelling with kids. 

Last but not least, Romley Guest House B&B is highly recommended, even though we are always picky and rarely so much satisfied with any accommodation when we travel. The room was neat, cozy, and well refurbished. The host Bruce was very helpful, friendly, and funny. He surprised us by serving us Alaskan waffles one morning and American waffles in the other.

Lake District and Cumbria

After one and a half day exploring City of York, we departed for Lake District in Cumbria. It was when our road trip began. We picked up the car at York Rail Station and then headed northwest. Kendal, a town in the South Lakeland District, was like an entrance to the region. We went on an easy trail called Scout Scar, in order to prepare ourselves for the more strenuous hikes the following days. The next two stops were Stott Park Bobbin Mill and Furness Abbey of English Heritage located in the south end of Cumbria. The former is an interesting museum whose entrance is by guided tour only, while the latter is a splendid Abbey ruins probably the biggest we had ever seen. Then, we headed to Windermere, one of the popular tourists destinations as well as accommodation in Lake District. It was almost 18:00, but there was still our dear sunshine for a final activity of the day - another short walk on a pleasant circular route around the busy waterfront area of Bowness and the quieter shoreline around Cockshott Point.

The second day in Lake District there was a clear blue sky for a whole day. Before arriving in the center of Keswick for one of the Keswick Walks - Walla Crag and Ashness Bridge, a moderate-grade hike full of stunning views over Derwentwater and mountains, we stopped at Thirlmere on the way as we saw a beautiful reflection of mountains and azure sky on the still water of that lake. We also went up to Catbells Summit, where we had nice views around Derwentwater from a different angle. After a long exhausting day, we went to Castlerigg Stone Circle by car. The Circle with layers of mountains as background made another best picture. We were glad we did enjoy this day as much as possible, as the host of the guest house in Windermere mentioned once, “It’s a very nice day today, but I’m afraid it will get back to normal tomorrow”. Then, it rained the following two days.

We always prepare a Plan B or even a C before setting off, especially in the rainy Britain. On the third day it was raining quite heavily while we were having breakfast. We decided to go for Plan B to avoid outdoor activities, i.e. head north to visit castles or other historical sites of English Heritage. Clifton Hall, Brougham Castle, and Penrith Castle were all nice places to see. The sun started to shine in the afternoon, and so we switched back to Plan A. Back in Windermere we had a short uphill walk to Orrest Head. From the top there were spectacular views in all directions. At around 16:00 the sky turned clear blue. We went on an easy trail from Elterwater to Skelwith Bridge. Halfway between the two points there was also a pretty waterfall. We spent a wonderful time there. The spacious green, layers of mountains, together with the perfect sunlight made one of our favorite scenes. 

The next morning we departed from Lake District for an 8-day trip in Scotland. Instead of going straight to Scotland, which could have been a 3.5-hour drive, we stopped off at three historical sites around the English-Scottish border by the Hadrian’s Wall. They were Carlisle Castle, Lanercost Priory, and Birdoswald Roman Fort. We found the first two more interesting than the last one. Roman Forts are generally burnt-to-the-ground ruins. Surprisingly, entrance fee of the fort was the most expensive among the three sites. That little museum in the fort might be a reason of such higher cost. In the late afternoon we headed north to Stirling, our first stop in Scotland. On the way up approaching the rainy Scotland it started to rain heavily. We had no more activity the rest of this day, but we did worry about the absence of nice weather for the coming days in Scottish Highlands where we planned to explore the beautiful nature.

Scottish Highlands

Stirling is actually part of the Lowlands. Touring around the beautiful Stirling Castle under an azure sky was such a joy. Both the interior and exterior of the castle were impressive. The colorful state apartments, in particular, attracted my attention. From the bastions there were also bird’s eye views of the area. Stirling Castle was our favorite among all castles we visited in this trip. Then, we headed north to Dunblane, where we visited Dunblane Cathedral. It was not a gigantic church, but the interior looked very nice though. After a 12-minute drive west from Dunblane Cathedral, we arrived at Doune Castle. It was when it started to rain. Fortunately we were protected from the rain during the visit under the roof of Doune Castle. Next, we headed 120 km northwest and arrived at Dunstaffnage Castle. Sadly, it was raining hard. On the way up the coast we stopped by for a view of Castle Stalker. It would have been a very nice view under the sun.

Unfortunately, it was not only cloudy but also rainy the next morning. From our accommodation in Fort William we headed east to the famous “Harry Potter Bridge”, Glenfinnan Viaduct. It would have been a good spot to see the bridge close enough in nicer weather. Then, we needed to head east back in Fort William, from which we continued to head north so that we could also finish a round tour around Isle of Skye by the end of the day. On the way up we visited Commando Monument and Eilean Donan Castle, and had some views of lakes and mountains without sunshine. The sun came out at midday, when we started to go on this circular route from the Skye southwest to northwest, from which we started to explore the entire northern part, and then got back to our accommodation in Broadford in the southeast, via Portree, the Skye’s largest town where we had a delicious seafood dinner. The magnificent Quiraing and Mealt Falls were must-see.

The next morning we departed from Isle of Skye. Going back east and then up to one of the largest castle in Scotland, Urquhart Castle, the appealing castle ruins right beside Loch Ness, home of Nessie. After lunchtime we arrived at Fort George, a large 18th century fortress to the northeast of Inverness built to pacify Scottish Highlands in the aftermath of the Jacobite rising of 1745. Fort George has never been attacked and has remained in continuous use as a garrison. We visited the barracks and the Grand Magazine, that displayed reconstructions of life in the early days of the fort and the Seafield Collection of Arms respectively. There was also the Highlander’s Museum that exhibited uniforms, weapons, medals, World War I memorial plaques known as “death pennies”, photographs, paintings, memorabilia and regimental regalia. We spent quite a lot of time in Fort George, before returning to Inverness for a night stay.

Scottish Lowlands

Going from Inverness to Elgin the next morning we were leaving for Lowlands. The big ground of ruins at Elgin Cathedral was impressive especially on a beautiful sunny day, as we saw shadows of these remains all over the ground. We also went up to the top of the tower where we had a stunning views of the entire ruins. Spynie Palace, another attraction 6-minute drive away nearest to Elgin Cathedral, looked nothing like a palace or castle because of its relatively smaller size. We were passing a very happy day, as the sun continued to shine. The next must-see was Duff House, a Georgian estate house as well as part of the National Galleries that exhibited a range of art treasures and superbly furnished rooms. The next two stops were Tolquhon Castle, one of my favorites, and Huntly Castle, the last of the day before going a long way back south to Perth, a city in Central Scotland as well as the historic county town of Perthshire.

Huntingtower Castle in Perth was once known as The House of Ruthven. It comprises two fine and complete tower houses. There is also a fine painted ceiling in the hall of the eastern tower. The weather was quite nice. We headed south to the first stop in Kingdom of Fife - Dunfermline Abbey, founded in the 11th century by Queen Margaret, and the Palace, fallen into disrepair in 17th century. Dunfermline Abbey & Palace was one of the most impressive architecture we saw on this trip. Next, we visited Aberdour Castle, the 13th century fortified residence of Aberdour extended by the Douglases between 15th and 17th centuries. We continued to head south until we arrived in Edinburgh and the Lothians where we visited Blackness Castle and Linlithgow Palace the first thing, before enjoying an air of romance at twilight at Arthur’s Seat, the main peak of the group of hills situated in the center of the city of Edinburgh that provides excellent panoramic views of the city.

The first stop of the next day was Tantallon Castle, that served as a noble fortification for more than three centuries and endured three sieges. It was just too cold and windy there on the coast. We felt much better and had a nicer time in Dirleton Castle, a magnificent medieval fortress located 15-drive west away from the coastal Tantallon. The resuscitated splendid gardens in Dirleton Castle that include the world’s longest herbaceous border was another pretty attraction. Then, we went back west to Craigmillar Castle in Edinburgh. Craigmillar is a well preserved medieval castle. It began as a simple tower-house residence, and it developed gradually over time into a complex to structures and spaces, as subsequent owners attempted to improve its comfort and amenity. This was the last day of the trip we travelled by car. After returning the car at Edinburgh Waverly station, we had a very yummy seafood dinner at Mussel Inn Seafood Restaurant in Rose Street.

Before going back to England we spent the last two days touring around the beautiful Scotland's capital city of Edinburgh on foot. Luckily, weather was very nice both days. Attractions included Scottish Parliament, Royal Mile, St. Giles Cathedral, Edinburgh Castle, Princes Street Gardens, Scott Monument, and also Calton Hill on which we saw Dugald Stewart Monument, The Nelson Monument, National Monument of Scotland, and City Observatory, and from which we had another perfect panorama of the city in addition to the ones from Arthur’s Seat and Edinburgh Castle. It was such a joy picnicking at West Princes Street Gardens, especially when we settled on a bench opposite Ross Fountain with Edinburgh Castle just behind over the hill. We did plan for a 1-day trip in Durham before returning to London. It was unfortunately raining heavily for one whole day, so we saw almost nothing but Durham Cathedral.