Hello from the United Kingdom!
We have been having a delightful time traipsing around the United Kingdom. For starters, we covered Northern Ireland visiting Belfast and the Giant’s Causeway. Then we spent time in London including a day trip to the nearby city of Oxford. We followed up with a visit to Edinburgh, Glasgow, and the Highlands in Scotland. Our only error was missing out on Wales – but we are considering it our incentive to return.
Northern Ireland was first on our itinerary. We made sure to fit in a Black Taxi tour that took us around the city of Belfast explaining the highlights of the history that led to the time known as The Troubles. They explained several of the key historical figures from that period and helped walk us through the memories painted in murals throughout the city walls. It was interesting for us to note that at night the city of Belfast still has gates locked after sunset separating different districts, even today. There was a lot of pain, much of which still felt fresh to our tour guides and the residents we interacted with. Each had their own experience with bombs, shrapnel wounds, and discrimination.
It was also interesting to note, in contrast, how prominent the coronation decorations were on one side of town. We drove through a major city street hung with hundreds of United Kingdom flags and decorated with murals of the late Queen Elizabeth and the new King Charles. The dichotomy of this city was a world in and of itself to step into – one in a state of celebration, the other still healing from injury.
From Belfast, we explored the countryside. We started at Dun Luce Castle which we were taken to by a tour bus. There we were fortunate enough to catch a live choir, who was also just passing through, performing for fun in what used to be the main hall of this castle. The rocky ruins have played host to several film sets, but today were the backdrop to our private concert. Their voices echoed through the stones and were lost in the crash of waves off the cliff. They sang beautifully and it added immeasurably to our experience.
We drove on from there to the crown jewel of the region: Giant’s Causeway. From the parking lot you have two options, the red trail involves a two-mile hike and 162 shepherd's steps, the blue trail is a gradual asphalt-paved half-mile slope down. The whole sight is famous so there were way too many people visiting with us in the mid-afternoon; but, we found that if we walked the longer route (with the stairs) the crowd thinned. For a minute there, it was just the two of us and the countryside. We looked out over the crashing waves, and basalt pillars all assembled like magnets pulling each other into place. It was quite lovely.
When we did arrive in Great Britain, we reconnected with our traveling family in London. Since there was a group of us, and the city was so large, we decided to use a Hop-on-Hop-off bus. We spent two days taking in the architecture and using the bus to transport the group to different neighborhoods. All while the vehicle spouted interesting facts along the way. This also allowed us to participate in a river cruise along the Thames. Our guide presented the key sights, made jokes, and the boat’s captain even managed to sail us under Tower Bridge sideways, to help get the perfect photo as we came out the far side.
London was prettier than I was expecting, having had the mental image of it being grey and rather drab. However, the architecture was beautiful, each neighborhood felt cuter than the last. We did have some sunny weather for part of our trip without overheating. We used our time in the city for sightseeing, eating, and some time spent taking in the different neighborhoods. It was especially memorable to indulge in the beauty of the West End. Our party managed to collectively see Hamilton, Phantom of the Opera, and The Mousetrap. Our household has big Broadway fans. So we had high expectations for the shows, and were pleased with the outstanding skill and beautiful performances of the actors.
We also traveled to Oxford together. We went to soak up the scholarly experience (even if the school was not in session). There were plenty of beautiful buildings with compelling architecture, maybe one or two punters, and libraries/bookshops galore. It was a joy to see the different colleges, learn about their varying personalities, and recognize some locations from the Harry Potter films. I also particularly liked having the different key hotspots for the Inklings pointed out as we passed.
From London, we said goodbye to our travel companions and hopped a train north towards Scotland. We left from King’s Cross Station and made sure to check out platform 9 ¾ on our way. The views out our train windows that day were a delight. We stared out at the sprawling greenspaces of rural England and as we drew further north witnessed a peaceful stretch along the coastline of Scotland. It was enough to make you fall in love with trains anew.
Our ride took us to the town of Edinburgh, and we quickly became giddy with excitement. The whole city was built out of these heavy-looking grey stones. There was a common thread of unity running through the architecture, and it only became more stunning. The city is built around a central hill, atop it rests Edinburgh Castle. It feels like everything is pointing up toward it. These old stone buildings each carry the stories of magic and families, tracing back centuries. Even when you could not see the castle, each city street was more beautiful than the last.
We learned during our stay here that there is a Scottish author’s tradition of granting your characters the names you find in graveyards (as a way of keeping those people alive). We strolled through Greyfriars Kirkyard one afternoon and found several storybook characters resting in peace there. That encapsulated our time in Edinburgh - it felt like it had been plucked out of a storybook. Our tour of the castle had tales of Queens, Kings, famous historical moments, and figures. A highlight for us was strolling through The Meadows, drinking some of the best hot chocolate I have ever had, and watching different groups of people playing soccer or cricket, walking their dogs, airing out their children, or just having a barbeque. The whole stay was peaceful, filled with music, and beauty – just like a book. We loved it here.
This is all the more reason we were excited for our next stop, We stayed in Scotland and progressed on to Glasgow. This city was comparatively quite modern, with many more industrial features. It was also bustling with the crowds of daily commuters and a busy working population. We used this stop as our base to visit the Highlands. Taking a bus up, we traveled to Loch Lomond, several stunning vistas, and the recognizable Loch Ness. We stopped along the way to photograph the Three Sisters and saw where they filmed some James Bond and Harry Potter scenes. What we did not see was Nessie, much to our disappointment. The Loch Ness was the color of the night sky. It rippled gently hiding untold secrets beneath its surface. That mystery made it easy to understand where the legends of sea monsters arose from.
We have packed quite a lot into our tour of the United Kingdom, and so many different regions have their own distinct experiences. I am glad we were able to dedicate the above time to exploring so much of it. We know that there are entire sections of the country we have still left to explore; however, for now, we must move on. Our bags are packed, and we are heading to the first country to ever claim atheism - in the sixties, this nation abolished all religion. Any guesses where we are headed next?