Exploring England 2015. Part 1 Introduction.

Wednesday, Sep 09, 2015 at 17:13


“When are you coming to visit again?” Rob, our eldest son who is an archaeologist in the UK, asked us well before Christmas. The idea was certainly tempting … but we had had a few health issues since our previous UK trip. Were we really up to it? It took some careful thought before we finally decided to go in the northern summer of 2015. Having made that big decision there followed months of detailed planning, until finally, at the end of April 2015 we were ready to board a plane and head off for a 2 month adventure.

Back home again now we are planning a series of thematic blogs to describe our experiences. But first a bit of information about the how, what and where – the nuts and bolts of the whole process, that might be useful for others who, like us, are less experienced overseas travellers and who may be thinking of doing something similar.

We always aim to have someone living in our home near Canberra while we are away, for security and to look after our animals, a much loved border collie and a few head of cattle. So, as we have done several times before, we went to the Aussie Housesitters site at aussiehousesitters.com.au. We were a bit apprehensive as most Ozi travellers quite reasonably want to travel in Australia’s north during our winter months, and Canberra winters are not especially tropical. We sifted through the long lists of registered sitters and found a couple of dozen who seemed suitable, then contacted them with a description of our place and what we would expect of them. Unsurprisingly we received many polite refusals but after a couple of weeks we had a short list of about 4 couples who could housesit for us. Skype interviews followed before we settled on retirees John and Helen who hailed from Queensland and who ticked all our boxes, including, most importantly, a liking for dogs.

Planning our trip took a bit more time and effort. We had been to England a few years ago, so had some idea what to expect and some general ideas about things we would like to see. For more specific advice we relied on Rob who, after about 5 years in the UK, has a good grasp of English history, geography and archaeology. Doing the research for any trip is a rewarding process, and so it was this time round with books, maps, Google and Google Earth all getting a thorough workout. Finally with a long list of places we would like to see, and a spreadsheet to manage our decision making, we settled on a tentative itinerary. We would start near Cambridge where Rob is based, then travel to Norfolk, Kent, Dorset, Gloucestershire, London, Scotland, and York for a good look around before returning to Cambridge for a final few days. Rob had enough leave to travel with us for about half the time; the rest of the time we would be on our own.

We would travel using a few different forms of transport. Most were booked online and well in advance to get the best prices we could. Tickets for a few trips on public transport were purchased at short notice with variable outcomes. We flew to and from England via Singapore with British Airways, a good flight that took about 22 hours flying time. Internal flights were done with EasyJet, flying to and from Gatwick which is a big, busy terminal. As we were on early flights out of Gatwick we had to spend the preceding nights in one of the many hotels near the airport. Fortunately these hotels are well set up with shuttle buses, and coordinated with the airport to facilitate luggage check in, off-site parking etc.

Rob used his car for some of the trips, but we hired cars for the Norfolk, Kent and Scottish sections of our journey. We used Enterprise rent-a-car, a company that we had used before and who were known to offer reliable service and who have a good range of locations. Although prices were a little higher and conditions a bit tighter this time around we were still well satisfied with the vehicles and service we received. Driving in the UK though is another matter, as their narrow, often winding roads and busy urban streets require a very different set of driving skills from those that we use on our wide and relatively uncongested roads here at home.

English trains are a mixed bag. We travelled on the national Rail network from Edinburgh to York, and then from York to near Cambridge. We made the mistake of buying our ticket at Edinburgh on the day of travel and paid a whopping price for our ignorance. For the next leg south we did book a few days in advance, so paid less but could only get a ticket that required 3 changes of trains, some of the stops allowing only about 10 minutes in which to make the change. That journey was daunting in prospect but we negotiated it without incident, though with a fair bit of asking for directions. It would appear that booking as far in advance as is possible is the way to go in future.

Using the London Tube seemed somewhat easier, once we had an Oyster Card, although wrestling heavy luggage through big stations with plenty of stairs and giant elevators is not for the faint hearted – not all stations have lifts. Tube trains and stations have good signage so navigating around the city is fairly straightforward once we refreshed our understanding of how it all works.

The most economical trip was by bus from Oxford to London – just buy a ticket on the day, turn up at the appointed time and sit back and relax. The exact route changed a bit to avoid traffic snarls as we came into London, so we got off when we realised that we had overshot our destination and caught a cab back to our hotel.

Navigation, whether in urban or country areas really requires more than paper maps. We used the OSS Navigator app on both our Android devices and once we got it set up properly it worked reasonably well. Being GPS based it was able to record our tracks as nmea files that we downloaded for display on Google Earth once we were home. A downside of using on-board maps was that it could not respond in real time to local traffic conditions and avoid congested roads. Rob used Google Maps running on the phone network, a more efficient system, though without the tracking facility.

All our accommodation – mostly self-catering cottages or similar - was booked and paid for in advance using online sites including Airbnb. While we used a few sites to book we really liked Airbnb as it was easy to pay deposits and make final payments using Paypal, simplifying currency interchanges. We disliked their practice though of adding cleaning and other fees onto the listed price. We found it necessary to use a few online sites to book a cottage where and when we wanted at a price we were prepared to pay – and even then we had to juggle our itinerary a bit so everything fell into place. Apart from Gatwick and London hotels, we used 10 different cottages. They ranged from quite reasonable to excellent, but with little correlation between price and quality. In most cases we met the owners who were most hospitable and happy to give advice about local attractions, best routes, shops etc, and generally made us feel welcome.

Special mention must be made of our accommodation near Cambridge, where we stayed with Rob who shares a house with owners Becky and Nick. Theirs is a 600 year old house that Becky is restoring. We were very generously offered the use of a room there while we were in England. We stayed there at the start and end of our journey, enjoying the company of the little community that lives under that ancient roof. Thank you Becky and Nick for your wonderful hospitality.

While all the research and booking was in full swing, John was doing a bit of behind-the-scenes secret planning of his own, in collaboration with our sons. This became known as “secret men’s business” much to Val’s consternation. A surprise was planned – although she doesn’t much appreciate surprises – to celebrate her 70th birthday. Eventually after it was judged that the suspense could be sustained no longer it was revealed that a trip to Venice was planned as a birthday celebration. Rob would accompany us and we would stay in a highly recommended hotel overlooking the Basin and Grand Canal. That really was a treat, and we will have a blog or two on that later.

It was while we were in Venice that the deficiencies in our communication technology became distressingly apparent. Our much loved dog, Lucy became seriously ill, and our housesitters and Canberra based son, Andrew, were doing everything they could to ensure she would be there to greet us on our return. We had recently purchased an Android smartphone, and had put a prepaid English SIM in it in London – but that didn’t work in Venice. Our usual email refused to work. After much time consuming frustration we discovered that our transmissions were being rejected because our need to leapfrog through a number of ISPs suggested that we were spammers. Facebook messaging, when it wasn’t getting itself into password tangles, seemed OK, though not everyone that we needed to communicate with used it. Fortunately Rob had his iPhone so we were able to talk directly to Andrew. And fortunately too Lucy made a good recovery thanks to some dedicated nursing and care from housesitters John and Helen.

As we planned to visit a number of historic venues we purchased annual memberships of both English Heritage and the Australian National Trust, the latter having reciprocal rights in many countries. These memberships gave us free or reduced entry to many venues, and for an extended visit this was quite cost effective.

Eventually all the planning was done, the day of departure arrived and we were away. Join us as we relive our journey through the following blogs. They won’t be arranged in a sequential day-by-day order, but we will try to group them into themes. Let’s see how that works as we explore the coasts and waterways, the archaeology and history, the grand houses, castles, cathedrals, churches, museums, villages and cities, gardens and scenery that we found.

J and V
"Not everything that can be counted counts, and not everything that counts can be counted."
- Albert Einstein
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