Welcome back to The Sedentary Explorer! Helping you walk and not run as you see the sights around the world.
My previous article, “Crossing the Pond to Merrie Olde England” describes the steps you take in planning your trip to England. I will now help you make the most of your stay once you have arrived. jet-lagged and disoriented, and have made it through customs to your hotel. I will also list important England travel lessons.
England is filled with violence
Even before the2011 riots, England has a bloody history. Almost everywhere we went spoke of a violent past, from the Tower of London (numerous beheadings), Canterbury Cathedral (Thomas Becket was murdered near the altar), to the White Cliffs of Dover (if WWII pilots saw the cliffs they knew they made it home alive). We did not make it to Kew Gardens, but I am pretty sure somebody died there, too.
England has a rough history of being attacked. The Tower of London was built by a conqueror, William of Normandy, who built the Tower near a foundation from an earlier invader, the Romans. St. Paul’s Cathedral had volunteers to protect it from WWII bombing, and nearby buildings still display battle scars.
The Tower of London in particular is filled with intrigue and murder. The Beefeater tour we took happily relayed its violent past. Even idyllic locations, like Leeds Castle, which sits amidst a lake as its moat, has dark stories in its past.
London is Really Big
London is a combination of New York, Washington, D.C., and Los Angeles. It is the political, cultural, financial, and entertainment center of England. It is not a very tall city, with few buildings over ten stories tall, but it spreads out forever. There are no limited access highways going through the city, so you must manage dozens, if not hundreds, of traffic lights to cross the city if traveling by roadway.
Hence you learn to love the Underground, or subway, and are happy to pay to maneuver relatively quickly around town. Most sights are fairly central and within a few blocks of an Underground station. Unlike America where we expect to park 100 feet from our destination, be prepared to log mileage by walking a few blocks at a time. Walking shoes are a must.
Because of its size and the sheer number of sights, make a list of things to do and see and be ready to prioritize and trim it. Between travel and meals, we found we could reasonably see two sights in a day, at most. We could have spent all day at the Tower of London, and other sights are bigger than expected. Even the changing of the guard at Buckingham Palace takes a few hours when you include arriving early to get a good spot and all the various ceremonies.
Our busiest day was a bus trip we took that included Leeds Castle, Dover, and Canterbury Cathedral, ending with a boat ride up the Thames from Greenwich. While it was nice to see everything, we never got enough time at any single place. We always had to get back on the bus to get to our next sight. So you need to decide whether you wish to see a lot of things quickly, or see a few things more thoroughly.
You can’t take a bath in Bath
An excellent day trip was from London to Bath, an ancient city containing well preserved Roman Baths. The only hot spring in England bubbles up here, perceived as a sacred spot by the Celts. The Romans quickly claimed the site for their god, and realized the hot spring made it easier to build a large bath and cut down on water heating costs. The bath is one of the best preserved Roman ruins in England.
Later, in Georgian times, Bath became a spa town where the wealthy could escape the grime of the city. Most of Bath today retains the look of 200-250 years ago. A walk or ride around town provides excellent views. North of Bath lies the Cotswolds, a scenic region of rolling hills and quaint villages. Our double-decker bus tour took us into the edge of the Cotwolds, an area worth exploring further.
Bath is an easy two hour Underground and train ride from London. Our train ride back was standing room only due a concert at a beach resort further down the line. The history and peaceful presence in Bath was well worth any inconveniences.
Important England Travel Lessons
These travel lessons, not given in any particular order, come from the experience of my trip and are offered to prepare you to maximize your vacation to England:
1) England is not English. I know they live there, but we did not encounter a lot of British people. While some may have been from Scotland or Ireland, people come from all over Europe to live in London.
2) Don’t rush your meals. London allows you to relax and enjoy your meal. We took over one hour for lunch at various pubs, and dinner regularly ran over two hours. They allow you to sit as long as you like, so relax and enjoy it.
3) Expect to pay more for food. London is one of the most expensive cities in the world for dining. We ate lunch at pubs, and found we paid $12-18 per person for sandwiches and non-alcoholic drinks. Dinner could easily run $25-30 per person, and we did not go to the fancy or exclusive spots. Thankfully, our hotel included a buffet breakfast so we only had to buy two meals a day.
4) Don’t expect to spend dollars. Many countries are happy to receive American cash, but England is not one of them. Our first stop in England was at an ATM to withdraw British currency.
5) Relax and enjoy the view. London is a beautiful city, and I say that as someone who prefers scenic national parks to large cities. Enjoy what you see along the way; stop and take pictures when desired. But do not put your head down and rush to your next destination.
6) Take an umbrella and a jacket. London is cool and generally rainy. The high for the week in July when we were there was about 80 degrees. The summer is less rainy, but there can always be a passing shower. The locals always carry umbrellas so the tourists are well advised to comply as well.
7) Wear walking shoes. We averaged two miles or more a day walking. Not all at once, but the little jaunts quickly add up. People wearing sandals often find blisters as an unwanted souvenir.
8) See a Show. London’s West End is like Broadway, but without the crime. We saw Wicked and heartily enjoyed the topnotch acting and wittily brilliant plot. Find out what shows are playing during your stay and book ahead.
9) Visit a museum. London has many superb museums. I spent an afternoon in the British National Museum, which has everything from mummies, to ancient statues and bas-reliefs, to one-of-a-kind artifacts like the Rosetta Stone and the Magna Carta. A museum is a great place to enjoy culture during bad weather, or sit on the steps and soak up the sun during good weather.
10) Be ready to return. The end of our trip arrived before we were ready to come home. Between our experiences in London and a teaser of the surrounding countryside, we were already dreaming about our next trip to the British Isles.
Many people go to England hoping to find something out of Lady and the Tramp or Mary Poppins, while what they find may be more like Bend it Like Beckham. The British stuff is still there, just staffed by an increasingly foreign population. But don’t let that disappoint you, because all these people from other countries wanted to come to England. Then they liked it so much that they stayed. Since America is not part of the European Union, it is harder to move there. However, you will certainly enjoy your time in Merrie Olde England.
Wanger, Shirley, and Jacquinet, Clemence, editors, London: Knopf MapGuides. New York: Alfred A Knopf Press, 2008.
Marsh, Terry, and Locke, Tim, Essential England, 5th Edition. Heathrow, FL: AAA Publishing, 2010.
Schultz, Patricia, 1,000 Places To See Before You Die. New York: Workman Publishing Company, 2003.