The next leg of our ‘Volcanoes, vans and a haggis’ adventure takes place in the United Kingdom. We have six and a half weeks booked in a Spaceships campervan and will travel a roughly anticlockwise circuit of England, Scotland and Wales. As previously mentioned, the Edinburgh Fringe Festival and the World Bog Snorkelling Championships in Wales are two of the big highlights planned for the trip.
We have never travelled in a campervan before and I must confess that I had one or two brief moments of reservation in the lead up to the trip. Was zero nights to six weeks going to be too much? Would the taller member of our party even fit in the van?
I quickly learned that the UK, almost everyone you meet will chat to you about the weather (in fairness it is a near universal topic of non-offensive, ice-breaking small talk). Once they realise that you are from Australia they often adopt an apologetic tone as though a foggy, wet summer is somehow a collective failing on behalf of the British people.
A few days into the trip, in Whitby, we woke up to our first sunny day and, figuring that it might be the best weather we saw, dressed accordingly in shorts (and jumpers… there was a limit to our bravery). While visiting the Abbey we struck up a conversation with one of the staff members and when the chat inevitably turned to the sunny day (of which he was quite proud) we mentioned that we had come out in shorts since the weather was so ‘nice’. Our attempt to take a cup half-full approach to the quasi-warmth and embracing the English ‘summer’ was a wry “How very antipodean of you…”
On the flip side, if you mention that you are finding it a little chilly (when asked of course, we don’t walk around complaining to strangers about their home), people will reassure you that it’s quite warm and that 18 degrees is a fine temperature for the summer holidays. There is generally an inferred suggestion that the softness of Australians in cooler climates is infinitely amusing. After a few weeks we have developed an effective middle ground approach by which we admit that yes we have seen quite a bit of rain but reassure them that this has been balanced with some stunning days of sunshine. And this is, for the most part true, if you consider 80:20 a roughly even balance.
After a not entirely reassuring delay in Reykjavik, because a piece of luggage had “damaged the hull of the plane” requiring an engineer’s inspection, we arrived in London mid afternoon. I have a huge travel crush on London and will tell anyone who will listen that it is one of the most underrated cities in the world (passed over for destinations that sound a little more exotic or chic). This was just an overnight stop though with time to catch up with friends and family before picking up our campervan the next morning. A haloumi kebab, a pub meal, many beers and London was done.
We collected our Spaceships campervan and headed straight for Windsor to belatedly celebrate Ryan’s 30th… at Legoland. It is a magical place where amazing Lego exhibits like the Star Wars display make you remember how cool it was to be a kid while simultaneously strengthening the resolve not to spread the joy by having any of your own. By 2pm the collective energy was waning and there was a full blown temper tantrum happening every 30 metres or so (Ryan and I behaved ourselves though). Kids were over-sugared and over-tired and parents looked sunken-eyed and bewildered. We saw one dad napping against a wall with the family’s bags (I assume the rest of the family was on a ride but he may have just done a runner). Even more exciting than Legoland was arriving at our campsite to spend the first night in the van. We camped at the delightfully quaint Glebe Leisure, not too far from Oxford.
It was time to get our English Heritage on and the first stop was Kenilworth Castle. Visiting famous castles and other historically significant sites was a huge drawcard for me and I couldn’t wait to see these places for myself. Here is a questionably brag worthy anecdote to put this into context. When I was a kid I used to spend hours tracing castle floor plans from a book of British castles that I owned(read – borrowed from my dad in a permanent-loan capacity).
From there we visited the Battle of Bosworth. The museum is very close to the location of the Battle of Bosworth where King Richard III was killed, ending the War of the Roses and placing the Tudor line firmly on the throne. I am fascinated by the War of the Roses history and Richard is an historical figure of particular interest as he seems to be a key example of how history can be reshaped by the victors. The museum included information on the recent archaeological discoveries that have helped them to narrow down the specific site of the battle as well as the discovery of Richard III’s skeleton.
We took a long haul drive from there all the way up to Whitby area where we stopped by to visit my Uncle Geoffrey (my poppa’s brother) and his family. We arrived at Bay Ness Farm late in the evening to secure a beautiful cliff top pitch looking down to Robin Hood’s Bay.
We woke to the previously mentioned sunshiny day and headed into Whitby to make sure that we were at the Abbey when it opened. The audio guide will encourage you not to race out to the Abbey but to take your time listening to the introductory audio to set the scene. Disregard this. Get there when it opens and take a lap around this magnificent structure before it is crawling with people (and dogs, but more on that in future posts). You can then head back to the beginning of the audio tour to take your time. Many of the English Heritage sites have free audio tours that add a lot to the visit.
By the time we finished at the Abbey, Whitby had transformed into a heaving mass of people and we got our first taste of English seaside towns in the summer holidays. The water front was bustling with people and the air hung heavy with that greasy smell of fried food that smells so appealing when you’re hungry and like a heart-attack-by-smell the rest of the time. Being hungry, we indulged in tray of chips and I widened my culinary experiences, arguably not in a good direction, by trying chips with curry sauce for the first time. Just as chips are a staple at Indian restaurants here, curry sauce is available at every fish and chip shop.
In the afternoon we returned to our campsite and wandered down into the charming Robin Hood’s Bay by foot. The small seaside village is full of narrow winding alleyways that it would be quite easy to get lost in except for the fact that it is also very steep so if in doubt you can just head downhill and you will pop out at the beach eventually. The presence of sunshine aside, we decided that it would be better to have a pint than a swim.
In the morning we had a little bit of time up our sleeve so we popped down to have a quick look at Scarborough. It was shaping up to be busier than Whitby by lunchtime with the beach front lined with carnival attractions and vendors of small plastic things of a shiny nature designed to capture the attention of children and the hard earned cash of their parents. We confined our visit to a flying visit of the castle (thanks to our English Heritage passes once again) before returning to Robin Hood’s Bay for a family visit.
We spent the morning with another of my poppa’s brothers, Peter, before setting our Spaceship on course for Stockton-On-Tees for another family catch up. We detoured via Guisborough to have a look at their priory on the way, and arrived at the home of my Great Uncle Robert mid-afternoon. Robert showed us around the local area and took us out for a brilliant pub meal. One of the surprise features of Stockton was the incredible Tees Barrage White Water Rafting Centre, a series of artificial rapids, complete with canoe slalom course, that have been built into the Tees. I had never considered Stockton as an adventure sport destination but I would definitely add it to my list of destinations next visit.
Some of family lived in Stockton before they moved to Australia, so in the morning Robert gave us a quick tour of many of the local sights including the church where my grandparents were married and some old family homes. From there we headed north to explore Hadrian’s Wall.
Once again, the English Heritage passes were proving their worth and we were able to visit Chester’s Roman Fort and Museum, and Housesteads Roman Fort to learn more about the wall and the fortifications built along it. By the time we arrived at Housesteads there was a decent wind driven down pour on. We didn’t let this deter us from joining a free tour and managed to last about 45 minutes in the rain learning about how the fort operated before we decided it was time to go solo so that we could pick up the pace. We legged it up to the wall past some very water logged sheep and traversed a tiny section of the wall while I hummed ‘Hadrian, Hadrian, build it, build it’ (an historically questionable ditty about the purpose of the wall from beloved Australian children’s singer Peter Combe of ‘Toffee Apple’ fame).
Soaked through to the skin, we turned the van into a mobile drying rack and drove well over an hour to Lindisfarne with the air-conditioner blasting and wearing just our undergarments (keeping our fingers crossed that we wouldn’t have to pull over unexpectedly). We were very happy to arrive at our campsite at Barn Neal for a hot shower and some warm food.
Lindisfarne had been a fairly last minute addition to the itinerary, driven by our recent preoccupation with all things Viking (because of our visit to Iceland and,full disclosure, a recent addiction to the TV show, Vikings). The Holy Island of Lindisfarne is historically famed because it claims to be the home of Christianity in England and also because, the Lindisfarne Priory was one of the first sites sacked by Viking invaders in 793AD.
The island is only accessible by causeway at low tide which means it is uniquely isolated with limited accommodation available on the island itself. In the small village, many of the shops operate on very odd times to accommodate the changing window of time in which day visitors can access the island. As well as the lovely village and the ruins of the Lindisfarne Priory, the island also boasts its own castle which stands in aloof isolation on the eastern edge of the country.
Lindisfarne marked the end of our first English leg of our trip. From there it was time to head north to visit my favourite ‘land of the brave’ – Scotland.