Ask any American with a planned trip to the United Kingdom where they intend to visit, and you’ll almost always hear the same response: “London.”
Yes, London is the capital city of the U.K., and it is brimming with history and wonderment, and yes, it’s close to the two major airports. However, take it from a Brit who grew up near London, there is so much more to see and do in the U.K. Therefore, take in all the sights and sounds of London; the centuries-old bridges; Trafalgar Square; the West End; Buckingham Palace; the British Museum; and various other things you’ve seen in movies; take it all in. But, then hop on a train and head out of the city.
A vacation in the U.K. should start in London and end up in London. Along the way though, there is a wealth of beautiful countryside, fantastic architecture, splendid landscapes, and welcoming towns and villages to pitch your tent near. Or, find a bed and breakfast or hotel near…whatever you feel comfortable doing.
A relatively cheap rail pass is available to purchase stateside before you arrive, and it’s an excellent option in that it gives you unlimited access to the U.K.’s expansive and effective railway system. There isn’t a town in the UK without a rail station or one quite nearby. My sister’s village (with a population of 210 people, 13 horses, 45 cows and a goat named Norman) has a rail station in it. I prefer rail over the roads when I go back to the U.K. for one reason alone: I don’t have to drive on the left side or worry about such things as dual carriageways and double roundabouts, or a dual carriageway with a double roundabout. Or even a double dual carriageway with a triple roundabout. And there is so much more to see while sitting on a train.
A good first stop on your U.K. adventure is Stratford-upon-Avon in the historic county of Warwickshire, England. It’s about a two-hour train ride from London’s Marylebone rail station. Shakespeare’s hometown has something for everyone. Of course, there are all of the buildings associated with The Bard himself, such as the half-timbered house in which he was born in 1564 and the extraordinarily well kept Anne Hathaway’s Cottage just down the street. You can spend an entire day absorbing the heritage of each amazing Shakespeare property, but you should end the day by enjoying a nice pub dinner at the Dirty Duck pub, a regular watering hole for the actors of the Royal Shakespeare Company who tread the boards in the theatre across the street. Stratford-upon-Avon is a family-friendly town, and you’ll leave it with a part of it etched onto your heart. And don’t leave town without visiting Shakespeare’s grave within the Holy Trinity Church. It gives you chills.
After a good night’s rest in whichever abode you decided upon, and after enjoying your traditional British breakfast fare of bacon, sausages, eggs, baked beans, fried bread, black pudding, and tea, head to the rail station. Wait…black pudding? It’s mostly fried congealed pig or cow blood. It’s best to smother it with ketchup, mix it in with the sausages and think “God Save The Queen” as you wolf it down.
Next up, using your handy rail pass, take a train to spectacular Wales. The Snowdonia National Park is ideal for a family. It’s a mammoth playground built of mountains, hills, lakes, rivers, valleys, woodlands, and beaches. You don’t have to be a seasoned mountaineer or kayaker to enjoy the park, it’s all quite easy to navigate. The park covers some 827 square miles and has 37 miles of coastline, but you can pick just a couple of square miles for this portion of your U.K. trip. Mount Snowden, located within the park, is the tallest point in Wales at 3,560 feet. On the way to Snowden, you’ll discover the glorious lake Llyn Llydaw. It’s the most visited lake in the U.K. and for good reason. It’s an incredibly picturesque locale. As you can imagine, the scenery in this neck of the woods is breathtaking so make sure you know how to work the panorama function on your digital camera or smartphone.
After experiencing the majestic Snowdonia National Park for a day or two, wolf down some more black pudding and head to Scotland to eat some haggis-because if you’re okay eating congealed animal blood, eating a cow’s stomach lining should be right up your alley.
It’s a longer train ride to Scotland, but you’ll see some outstanding countryside on the way. Indeed, if you’re up for a more elongated route, you could swing by Alnwick and its castle in the northwest part of England, just south of Scotland. Alnwick Castle was always a steadily popular tourist attraction, but in 2001, it became something else that added to its appeal. It became “Hogwarts” in the Harry Potter movies-or at least the first two outings. Fans of J.K. Rowling’s world would kick themselves for not dropping by and giving a nearby muggle a good stare.
Once in Scotland, Stirling is a great place to stay. Centuries ago, it was the capital of Scotland and was significant in years past as the Gateway to the Highlands with its placement near the boundary of the Scottish Lowlands and Highlands. As depicted in Mel Gibson’s somewhat cringe-worthy 1995 movie, Braveheart, (can you tell I wasn’t a fan?), William Wallace (Gibson’s character) and Robert the Bruce fought in Stirling at the Battle of Bannockburn in 1314, a major clash during the Wars of Scottish Independence. The Scots built Wallace a monument, and it’s an eye-popping sight as it towers above the city. Add Stirling Castle to the mix, and you have the makings of a fun day or two for the whole family.
There are other day trips to undertake just outside of Stirling with Falkirk and Dunfermline nearby, both rich with Scottish culture and history. With the vacation in its final stretch, take the overnight sleeper train from nearby Glasgow to London’s Euston station, and remember your time walking the streets that Shakespeare walked, breathing the clean fresh air of Snowdonia and reminiscing how you discovered that William Wallace did not actually have an Australian sounding American accent.
“Wait!” you cry. We’ve only covered three of the four countries that form the United Kingdom-England, Wales, and Scotland. What about Northern Ireland? Well, it’s just as divine and remarkable, but you should go there during a trip to the whole of the Emerald Isle. So, take in Ireland, then Northern Ireland and wait for me to write a future article featuring some sights to see outside of the major cities.
If there is time left over, take another day to tour London, but visit the back streets off of the beaten path. I once stumbled upon a community in London that had houses side-by-side and untouched from the 1800’s. It was like stepping back in time.
The U.K. is a great vacation spot for couples, families, or a single backpacker. However, don’t just do London, do the rest of the nation as well. And when you come back to America, surprise your friends by saying: “I left London and ate black pudding and haggis.”