Friday, July 5, 2019

England (London, Stonehenge, Bath, Cotswold, Oxford, Lake District, York, Manchester)


Home of Sherlock Holmes
2015. It was in the year 2015, when I decided that I must watch the next cricket world cup, which happened every four years and interestingly, the next one was in UK and I hadn't traveled there yet. After passing through the London Heathrow airport a zillion times, I was finally determined to fly into London airport in 2019, which, alas, didn't really happen. Here is our brief itinerary before all the juicy details.
Day 1: Train from Edinburgh -> London
Day 2: London sightseeing
Day 3: Day trip to Cotswold, Oxford
Day 4: Day trip to Stonehenge, Bath
Day 5: London sightseeing
Day 6: Relaxed day in London with some sightseeing
Day 7: Match day in Birmingham
Day 8: Train + car to reach Lake District
Day 9: Lake district
Day 10: Lake district -> drive to York
Day 11: Match day in Leeds
Day 12: Day in York -> drive to Manchester
Day 13: Fly out of Manchester
I plan to log about this trip city-wise and not day wise. It makes more sense that way as our itinerary was also driven by car rentals and visiting families. Also, I am going to add just a section on match days to log our memories from the match days. This itinerary is a part of longer UK trip which included Scotland travel before England, which is also logged in the blog. Take a look if you'd like.

Where to fly in:

Anywhere you get good flight tickets to. Taking a train to the city you intend to visit isn't much troublesome. The distances aren't much, so it won't be time consuming as well. We flew in to Manchester as we got a good deal with the flights. Hence we visited Scotland first and then England. However, with non US/UK/EU passports, it does take a while to get through immigration.

When to go:

It is mostly cold and rainy in London even during summer months. I was afraid we are going to hit that weather going end of June. But luckily, weather got better and we were there during a heat wave, which is so much nicer than the heat waves we get in California. Weather was warm, bright and sunny. No rains, so no days were wasted sitting at our hotels. Hence, I would think July and may be August would be good times to visit. Unless, you want to go see snow clad Great Britain. I am sure that has its own charm.

London

London always always reminds me of the TV series FRIENDS that was shot in London for a few episodes. I just can't get that out of my head. So here we were. Six adults, ready to explore London!
We spent three days in London and I think we got to most of the touristy stuff we intended to, including Crystal maze! Here is how our days went.

  • Day Zero: 

Dishoom, King's Cross
We arrived late in the afternoon via train from Edinburgh, It was a decent 4 hour journey and once we got here, we decided to settle in our Airbnb, which was a three bhk apartment to accommodate us and our parents and our kitchen needs. Once we were settled, we met Roohi, my childhood friend and Rohit, Sumit's cousin was a sumptuous meal at Dishoom. You will soon realize we are huge Dishoom fans. We mostly strolled around the King's cross area and London being under heat wave, was just perfect for us. Balmy summer sun. In the evening, we got back and waited for our parents to get home from the airport. Today was the day to just settle in and start exploring the following day.  

  • Day One: 

Buckingham Palace
Westminster Abbey
Today was supposed to be a typical touristy day in London. Best thing we did was to buy the London explorer pass for ourselves and our parents. Parents had the 5 attraction pass and we had the 7 attractions pass. First we called an Uber to the Buckingham palace. We got dropped off a little farther away from the palace entrance. We walked all the way and took pictures. We were in time for the changing of the guard ceremony. It gets really crowded here, so find a good spot. Well, as good as you can with all the tourists blocking your view.  Up next was the walking tour of this area. We walked from Buckingham Palace, to James Palace to all the way to Trafalgar square. Here we took a break to take pictures and grab something to eat at a nearby cafe. Then we took a token picture outside 10 Downing Street before walking to the Westminster Abbey. We didn't plan on going inside. But took plenty of pictures outside. Then we walked all the way to the Big Ben. And in between stopped to take pictures with the statues of Gandhi and Churchill. Big Ben was sadly under scaffolding and undergoing major renovations. Next up was a ferry ride from the pier right outside the Big Ben to the Tower Bridge. Our explorer pass had this covered and having an app on the phone was super helpful to scan and get your tickets. The ferry ride was sunny and bright, but windy. The commentary was funny, and gave you a good overall idea about major attractions in the city. Once we got off the ferry ride, we walked all the way to the bridge, got our tickets to get in the towers and took pictures inside. We also witnessed the opening and closing of the bridge as a ship had to pass through. Pretty exciting. Next, we spent some time at a Starbucks drinking coffee and cooling down in the hot weather.
London Eye
Final segment was to Uber all the way to London Eye. Here we got our tickets through the pass and got in the long albeit fast moving queues to get on the London Eye. It was almost sunset. View were pretty, I wish we had come here after sunset, would have been nice to see well lit London from bird's eye view. Once we got off, we grabbed something to eat and headed straight home and called it a day. We were done with a lot of major attractions today, but were a bit tired with all the walking.

  • Day Two: 

The Famous '83 World Cup balcony
We started off our day with Lord's tour. I had booked this off six months ago, because I knew that due to World Cup, there would be limited openings for tours. I am glad I did. Our parents loved the tour, especially going to the balcony and seeing the cup Kapil Dev had lifted in 1983. If you are a die-hard cricket fan like us, must must do this tour.
Before Megxit
Next up, was Madam Tussaud's. It was covered under our Explorer Pass, but the queue for getting tickets is long plus there is waiting for the entry time too. We had found this out the previous day and gotten our tickets for this day, so luckily it worked out. This attraction is the busiest one in London and make sure you have tickets beforehand, so that you avoid those 2-3 hours of wait. So we had about an hour to kill before we were let in, so we went out to grab food and drinks with parents. Also, Sherlock Holmes' house, 321 Baker street is very close by, so it makes for a good quick trip. And don't forget to take a picture with his statue. Anyhow, once we got in the wax museum, our parents went crazy taking pictures with all the Bollywood stars. They even had Narendra Modi and Virat Kohli. I have never taken so many pictures in a single location before. It was so much fun to see our parents thoroughly enjoy this place.
It was already late afternoon by the time we got out, so our parents headed home and I headed to meet my friend Roohi. I took a brief stop at Bond street for some window shopping and then headed out her place. Sumit joined me later after dropping off the parents. It was so much fun and just like old times hanging out with her.

  • Day Three: 

Crystal maze
The activity I was most looking forward to was scheduled for this day. The Crystal Maze. I had grown up watching Crystal maze, and given how crazy I am about puzzles, I was so excited about it that I can't even express and yes, the experience lived up to its expectation. A crazy host leading us through four zones and playing different types of practical games. What else could I ask for. I was super duper amazed at the setup, execution and the overall experience. On my next trips to London, I plan on adding more such things to our itinerary. But if you are a Crystal Maze fan, this is a must do. Next up, we stopped at the St. Paul's Cathedral. And it is gorgeous. I absolutely loved it. One of my favorite cathedrals for sure. Beautiful and magnanimous. Then we headed home for some home made lunch and our parents rested and ready to step out. The first stop was the London Tower museum. Our parents were very keen on seeing the Kohinoor, so we just had to make a stop here. But this time we took the tube to get to the museum so that our parents can experience the public transport as well. Once we got to the museum, we headed straight to the section where kohinoor is kept as there is a long waiting queue to get in. Its actually overwhelming to see so many jewels and gold housed in one place.  Once we got out, we wanted to get on the Big Bus as our final to-do item in London and that is what we did. We took the big Bus tour which was also included in our explorer pass and got off the near King's cross. We had made a reservation for dinner for parents and my friend and a cousin this day. After a big sumptuous meal in at Dishoom, we called it a wrap for our London tour. I guess three days were plenty for relaxed and easy touristy sightseeing in London. 
St. Paul's Cathedral

Day trip to Cotswold and Oxford

Tea at Cotswold
We rented a car in the morning to drive to Cotswold and Oxford and get back to London the same night. We picked a Hertz rental closest to our location, which was Marble Arch. Pick up was quick and easy, but the trick was to get out on London central zone before you get charged for driving in the high traffic zone. So, we carefully navigated out of the city to make sure we aren't driving in the high traffic zone. Maps are readily available online for the zones.
Our goal for the day initially was to visit a village or two in Cotswold, then head out to Stratford Upon Avon followed by a walking tour in oxford. But, we realised that may be stretching ourselves with parents, so we dropped Stratford Upon avon from our plan for the day.
Oxford
Our first stop was Cotswold. Its is an AONB, Area of Natural Beauty. Some classification in UK, parallel to national parks I believe. The village we decided to visit was Burton-on-the-water, the most popular village to visit. Once you navigate to the village, there are some single roads to the village and you may be better off finding parking as soon as you see the little shops lining up the street. Else, you can drive up to the end of the long street that goes through the village and park at the end in designated parking complex. But you will need change for the parking meter. These small villages are a perfect weekend getaway if you want to spend peaceful couple of days away from a noisy city. There are some things to do in this little village, like a maze, a motor museum, a miniature village, etc, but nothing that would interest us, so we decided to just walk along the tiny streets. Beautiful little bridges and a walk along a narrow stream is what interested us. A perfect idyllic setting, straight out of a story book. We stopped for some tea and scones and then visited some shops. Its just a cute little place to visit.
Ratcliffe Camera
Next up, we headed straight to Oxford. One thing to note is that Oxford comprises of multiple college and you can't see it all in one day. There are few iconic libraries and halls you might want to pick and visit on your own, or with a tour. Best way to see Oxford for us was on foot on a walking tour. You can book different types of tours, paid and for free. We chose the tour that was offered by Oxford students for free and takes about a couple of hours. They take you to all the famous Harry Potter libraries, the dining room, the fame Christchurch college, Alice in Wonderland locations amongst many more. This is the best way to Oxford if you are budgeting your time. My favorites were the Christchurch College, the Ratcliffe camera and Einstein's handwritten equations on a blackboard in a tiny museum at Oxford.
Another thing about Oxford is parking. If you have driven here instead of taking a train(a better idea), finding parking will be the hardest thing you do. We went straight to a mall on Oxford campus and parked at the mall. (One of the best tips given by a family friend). After our two hour long walk, we stopped at a cafe, had lunch, had coffee, and rejuvenated ourselves to head out for another hour long drive to meet old family friends over dinner.


Day trip to Stonehenge and Bath

Since we already had a rented car, we had planned for another day trip outside of London. Mind you, since we were a family of 6 adults, it made sense for us to drive than to take the trains. But for a couple or 3 people, trains is definitely the way to go. Or plan was to go to Stonehenge, visit the city of Bath and then Windsor Castle if time permits. Clearly, we had to drop Windsor Castle from the plan as with parents along, things move a little slowly.
Stonehenge
Our first stop was going to be Stonehenge. This is a perfectly planned tourist spot. The visitor centre has tickets and then you get in a queue for the bus to take you to the Stonehenge. The actual circle is pretty big and located in middle of nowhere with rolling greens hills surrounding it. The whole location is pretty scenic. You get audio guides with your tickets, so take those and listen to the commentaries as you walk past various spots. We were with our extended family that day, so had planned on a picnic here. Out came the sheets and the burgers with some drinks. Was a brilliant idea by our cousins and a lot of fun. As such there is not much to see here, but you can get engaged in all the history of why and how this structure appeared and be fascinated. Later, you get in the queue to get back to visitor centre, where there is ample parking btw.
Bath in the city of Bath
Next up was drive to the city of Bath. Our plan was to rent a boat and just take boat on the canal, but unfortunately, wherever we enquired, all the boats were rented out, given it was a weekend and a sunny day. So we settled for walking on foot in the old town area. We found parking at a cricket club, which we later realized wasn't open to public and had to pay parking ticket. We walked past a county cricket ground, on to the old town center. The major attraction here in the "bath", as in the real Roman baths from which the city gets its name. The entry is a little steep and includes audio guide. Taken about 30-45 minutes to see the entire thing on your own and head out. Outside, there are cobbled streets with some musicians playing music and vendors all around you. We also went to the cathedral and wanted to climb up the stairs to get a view of the city, but the last entry had already closed. So, basically we were late today. You must plan things as per the closing times and head out early in the day if you want to check off things from your list.
Luckily, we found a very nice Boston tea shop, where we all settled in and got ourselves some refreshing teas and coffees. There was an Indian cafe nearby too, but the guy was hesitant to make chai/tea as he had run out of existing tea and didn't want to make any fresh tea. Oh well!
It was scorching hot today, given UK was under a heat wave! But nevertheless, we walked back to our cars through the streets lined with many local and branded stores and head back to Croydon, our dinner stop to meet our extended family that day.


Lake District

We wanted to spend a couple of days in a scenic place while our parents went to Scotland on a pre booked tour. After thinking and researching hard, we picked Lake District and kept Snowdonia for some other time. We had stayed over in Birmingham after our match the previous day, so booked a train to Manchester and a car rental from Manchester to drive to Lake District.
Outside Beatrix Potter's house
Lake District, like other AONBs, and national parks are a collection of smaller villages in a pristine natural setting. So, like any other place, pick a village which will be your base and drive to other places of interest. We had picked Windermere, as clearly this was the most popular tourist choice and had plenty of options to eat, sleep and shop. So, from Manchester railway station, we picked our rental car and drove straight to Windermere. We reached our Airbnb early evening. Parked our car, dumped our luggage and headed out.
Over the next couple of days, our goal was to visit a few location in Lake district and spend half a day biking in the area. Sumit had pre booked his bike rental and chose a few bike routes. He finally rode the Hawkhead hill and the Wrynose Pass, which turned out to be quite challenging. Cell phone network is patchy here, so downloading maps will be a great idea. He chose the following bike route and enjoyed the views so much, that we drove here in the evening.
Now if you are not planning to ride a bike, all the places are mostly accessible by car. Lake Windermere is a pretty huge lake and offers plenty of options to do and see. We drove all the way to Beatrix Potter's house and spent time in the tiny village most of which features in her story books. And then drove down the hill to take a car ferry across the lake. One could also take the cruise along the lake and get down at various spots and do a small hike, or visit various locations and come back on the ferry to get back to you starting location. There are plenty of options.
Somewhere in Lake District
Driving Route: We started with drive to Wrynose Pass and Hardknott Pass. beautiful views. Then we drove back to Ambleside, a beautiful village by the lake Grassmere. Here we grabbed something to eat and then hiked to the Stock Ghyll waterfall. Next we continued driving to Castlerigg Stone circle, which was like a mini Stonehenge, only much more scenic and a lot less crowded. Took plenty of pictures here. On the way we stopped at William Wordsworth House, which was under renovation, so couldn't go in. Roads are narrow, so it tends to get a bit scary, but just drive carefully and it will be all fine. We drove further to Ashness Bridge and Surprise view near Derwent Water and then drove all the way around the Derwent Water Lake to Honister Pass. Drive was scary but the views were beautiful. Then we drove to Buttermere lake and back to the town of Keswick, where we again got something to eat. This is a comparatively bigger town. So you could cho
se to stay here or Windermere. On our way back,we went to Aira Force waterfall, near the lake Ullswater, which was short hike from the parking lot. And then drove around Ullswater lake back to Windermere. The views were simply amazing. I especially loved our drive next to Ullswater.
Link to our route on the map.
Ullswater Lake
The last day, we had some time to ourselves, so we went on a boat cruise on the lake. Nothing too fascinating, but some sort of activity to do. Also, I loved the local shop sin the Windermere area for shopping. Really cute stuff here. If you want to shop, don't let go of this opportunity. Even for dining there are quite a few options. We had Italian one day and Thai the other day. The weekend dinners were crowded, so we were recommended to make reservations and glad we did.  Note, we spent 2-3 days here including the biking and the driving around. We were finally driving off to York, so spend some time here and meet our parents. Also on agenda was to go watch the cricket match in Leeds.


York

York Minster
This city has two parts, and old town surrounded by fort walls and the new town outside of those walls. Needless to say, most of the attractions are inside the walled city. We were driving from Lake District to York and had planned on keep the car rental in York and then drive to Manchester.  Car parking in a nightmare here especially in the old town. You can find parking for an hour or so, but overnight and long terms parking are very expensive. We reached the city in the evening and spent some time looking for parking! We temporarily parked in a short term parking to access our Airbnb. Locating our Airbnb was another task. The houses were numbered in a weird fashion and most of the residential buildings have shops at the ground level. It took us time, but we managed to get in. Once here, we unloaded our stuff and looked for long term parking. We found something a little farther out. After parking our car, we decided to just walk around and grab dinner before meeting our parents who were getting back from Scotland later in the night.
Tea Rooms @ York
There are some places from where you can access the fort walls and walk on foot on the top of the walls around the city perimeter. The few entrance to the walled city have cute guard towers, which aren't guarded anymore, but make for nice pictures. We walked along the fort walls for sometime, then grabbed dinner at Akbars, an Indian restaurant with decent enough food before  meeting our parents at the train station and walking back to our airbnb. It is a very cute town and a lot of young vibrant crowd keeps the streets busy on the weekends.
Next day we were our to Leeds to watch the cricket match and our parents enjoyed a rest day. But the day after we decided to explore the city. The old town is easily walkable and the cobbled streets lined with local and branded shops are very inviting too. We started from the York Minster, a huge gothic style church at the one end of the old town. Then we made our way to the other end of the town, Clifford's tower. In between we stopped at some shops, and also spent time getting tea and scones at a tea boutique. That's where my fascinator came out and we took pics I had been waiting for the entire trip. Before I forget, we had dinner at 29 States Indian restaurant and the food was very good. I recommend this place if you are looking for Indian food.
York is a perfect weekend getaway town with a very medieval feel to it. I am sure its popular with UK residents as a popular vacation place. We enjoyed our time here and I loved the city vibe. In the afternoon, we were headed out to Manchester by road. The train ride is also only an hour and I highly recommend not taking your car to York and using public transport.

Manchester

Manchester
The moment you drive in to the city, you realise this is an industrial town. A syou head towards the downtown, it is like any other big city, with lots of cars, one way streets and no place to park. Our hotel was very close to most of the attractions and we were luckily able to find an overnight parking. After we freshened up, we decided to take a walk near the old town area. We walked to the Manchester Cathedral and there was huge music festival going on near the Royal Exchange Theater. Entry was free but we skipped it and chose to go to Dishoom for dinner. Since we had been to Dishoom in London and Edinburgh, it only made sense to try the one in Manchester. As usual food was great and we ended up having a very pleasant conversation with our server, which resulted in dinner being complementary and getting invited to free breakfast the next day! How sweet was that. So, for next day, we got up up early to make sure we got our breakfast at Dishoom before heading out to the airport. Interestingly enough, at the airport, we got a free upgrade! It was 24 hours of freebies for us before our vacation ended. But well, there isn't much to do/see in Manchester, unless you are planning to watch a football match. We weren't as there were no matches on the days we were there.

Match Days

  • Edgabaston, Birmingham: 

Both the matches we attended were very well organised. From the moment we got off our train from London Marylebone station to Birmingham, there were directions and volunteers to help you get to the stadium. We had to first dump our bags at the hotel before we went to the stadium. And then we got an Uber to get to the stadium, but it was so crowded, that we decided to get off the car and walk to the stadium and it was definitely a good call. The security check in was super smooth and quick and finding our seats was easy enough.
And oh what seats! We got so lucky with our seats. The cricket fields are not as big, and hence the view is so good and so close to all the action, it is just a fantastic experience watching matches in UK. The crowd was fully charged up and watching the match in such an electrifying atmosphere is definitely worth the trip. There were food stalls outside and plenty of options to pick from. The queues got long during the innings break, so I highly recommend skipping a few overs and getting your food in early. Or carrying your snacks with you. Must carry your hydration with you. It got hot closer to noon and we were glad to be carrying our water bottles. All in all, Indian won against Sri Lanka, and got to see live action on the field, with Dhoni, Kohli and Sharma right in front of us.
Could not have asked for more.

  • Headingly, Leeds: 

Just like Birmingham, everything was super well organised. From parking to check in, it was all streamlined. Easy to get it and get out. Lots of food stalls, and again an electrifying atmosphere. We were carrying binoculars, so we spotted Anushka in the pavilion and also spotted Charulata, the oldest fan. Our seats were again very well located and we were seated in the first 4 fours for both the matches. We tried hard, but couldn't make it to the TV crowd. Sigh! But had a wonderful time waving our flag and wearing the Indian jerseys. Absolute fun.

Other Pointers:

Driving - 

Its left side driving, opposite of the US, but same as India. So you have to comfortable with that. Besides that, the roads aren't as wide a sin the US, I felt things were a bit cramped, parking is difficult and speeds are a little lesser.

Shout out to Dishoom

One super nice discovery in UK was Dishoom Indian restaurant. Its a UK based chain, but each and every venue is unique. We tried the one in Edinburgh, London's Kings Cross and Manchester. Some of them have a long wait, but its totally worth it. We tried quite a few options on the menu and they were all great. Also, their chai has unlimited refills and I could drink it all day. When our server in Manchester learnt that we were visiting all locations, he was so happy that our dinner was complimentary and we got invited back for free breakfast. They don't just focus on good food, but a good experience for the diners.

Big Bus London

London Explorer Pass - 

For sight seeing in London, we opted for London Explorer Pass, it gives you a cheaper price for combined ticket to a specific number of attractions. Turned out to be pretty economical for us. The app is available on phone. You can download your passes and scan the barcode at the ticket booths to get your tickets.

Rail travel - 

Super duper convenient. Highly recommended to book in advance and get seats. You can book later without seats, but then you don't want to be travelling in a crowded train without a seat. Also, look at the discount passes. They offer huge savings. We bought two together cards, which saved us a bunch of money. You need to have the passes on your phone and upload your picture, etc. Its a set up hassle, but savings are great especially you plan on using the rail transport. We use the trainline website for bookings.

Phones - 

We bought local numbers from a local grocery store and activated them. They worked just perfect for our phones and the unlimited calls and data was super convenient for navigation to stay in touch with our parents.

Other places to visit:



  • Stratford Upon Avon - A tiny Shakespeare village. We had initially planned to combine it with Oxford day trip, but we chose to go to Cotswold instead as it was closer that Stratford Upon Avon.
  • Windsor Castle - Outskirts of London. You need to buy a ticket to see the castle. It is one of the more popular and in-use castles by the royal family. But we dropped it from our day as we got pretty late driving back from Stonehenge and Bath.
  • Cambridge - It was a choice between Oxford and Cambridge for us. Both make for a good day trip from London. You could use public transport, but we were driving and as we just had to pick, we decide we will stick with Oxford as it was on our route to our family friend's house.
  • Snowdonia - It is located in Wales and we had planned to pick between Lake District and Snowdonia. After much research, we felt we should stick with lake District for this trip and then visit Snowdonia next time. It was just a matter of choice.
  • Wales - Another country a part of UK, Cardiff is a popular tourist town to visit and then Snowdonia is a national park that usually people visit. As we were skipping Snowdonia, we thought we would leave all of Wales sights for our next trip.




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