Sunday, January 12, 2014

Britain From A to Z: O


When we first decided that we were actually going to take a trip to Great Britain, our biggest decision was whether to plan it all on our own and use a rental car or find a bus tour that covered most of what we wanted to do. This was not an easy decision. The former would allow us to target just the specific places we wanted to visit, but would require a lot of planning and reserving ahead of time. Also, it would require us to drive a lot, and on the wrong—uh, left—side of the road, which none of us had ever done before. Well, not when sober, anyway. (Just joking!) For the latter, we would have to settle for visiting wherever the tour company chose and only be there for the length of time it allowed. However, we wouldn’t have to drive, thus freeing us to better view the countryside and even sleep if need be. Ultimately, we chose to use a tour company. For various reasons, we think it was for the best.

The only tour we could find that was close to matching the places we wanted to go and was the length we wanted to stay was with CIE Tours. The specific tour was The Icons of Britain. The only real issues we experienced during the tour pertained to heat. A couple of times the bus started blowing heat while the air conditioner was running. But they were able to pretty quickly solve this problem. Also, there were a couple of times where the hotel room we were in got too warm and we had to set up fans. You have to keep in mind that many of the hotels in northern Britain don’t have air conditioning because the weather usually doesn’t require it. Overall, however, we were very pleased with the comfort of the tour bus and the various hotels at which we stayed.

One unexpected treat was the historical stories told by our tour guide. Tom was a history major and knew a LOT about the history of all the locations we visited. Sometimes it was almost overwhelming how much information he passed on to us. On the ride from Glasgow airport to our first hotel, Tom seemed a bit aristocratic and pompous to me. But soon I realized it was just his accent and the dramatic way he spoke. He was actually quite a nice and personable guy, telling jokes as part of his storytelling. I ended up really appreciating him as a tour guide. Tom was with us for the entire 16 days of the tour. However, bus drivers were required by law to only work eight days in a row. Mark was our first driver and was quite a friendly ole chap. When we were wandering around Lake Windermere in Bowness, we ran into Mark and began talking to him. He was telling us all about where he lived and how much he enjoyed driving buses for various companies. Very personable, and an excellent bus driver to boot. On the second leg of our tour, Richard was our bus driver. He was a friendly chap also, but not quite the same as Mark. He, too, was a very good bus driver.

Our tour guide, Tom, talking to Kathy at our bus

Our first bus driver, Mark

Our second bus driver, Richard

The tour was extremely organized. We always knew where we were supposed to be and when. Our large luggage was always delivered to our room for us and picked up for loading in the mornings. Thus, we only had to concern ourselves with the smaller bags we carried onboard. Breakfast was provided every morning, and dinner was provided most evenings. Lunch was always on our own. Most of the time I felt like we had sufficient time at each stop we made, but there were a few occasions where I wished we had more time.

Early in the trip we stopped for lunch at Pitlochry, Scotland. We had lunch and then were on our own for a while. I separated from Kathy and Andrew to wander about taking photos. I got to the other end of town and decided to shift over a block and work my way back to the bus along a different street. After a bit, I found myself at a Scottish Ambulance Service at the end of the street. I looked at the time and realized I only had 10 minutes to get back to the bus and now I was having to backtrack. Fortunately, I found a crossover point and, with a bit of fast walking, made it back to the bus on time.

Late in the trip we stopped at Llangollen, Wales. Once again I wandered off on my own down a street. And once again I took a side street over to another street to work my way back to the bus along a different route. (I guess I never learn.) After a bit I realized that I didn’t seem to be making any headway working my way back to the street I was originally on and had no clue where I was. Suddenly, I heard Kathy say something to me. Boy, was I relieved. I assumed she knew where she was and could lead me back to the bus. As it turned out, we were on the street I originally had wandered down. Talk about being turned around. I had no idea how I ended up back on that street. It seemed that all the side streets were leading only further away from it. It was only after looking at the layout of the town on Google Maps and seeing how twisty the streets were that I understood how I got into that situation.

There were a number of interesting places we visited that we probably never would have thought to go to had we planned the trip on our own. Things like a Scottish Banquet in Edinburgh, a Welsh Banquet in Cardiff, a slate mine in Wales, and so forth. There were many interesting things we saw and did that were the result of the tour company planning them for us.

Even though the tour schedule was quite rigid, Tom was not averse to fitting in something extra if he could. For instance, as I mentioned in an earlier post, we were supposed to pass through Grasmere, England, the home of William Wordsworth, but not stop. Two English teachers on the tour asked if we could stop. Tom had us leave the hotel earlier that morning and thus made it happen. When we were in northern Wales, Andrew asked if we could go to the Isle of Anglesey to visit the town of Llanfairpwllgwyngyllgogerychwyrndrobwllllantysiliogogogoch. Tom made that happen also. However, Andrew’s request to visit Manchester United’s stadium as we were skirting Manchester couldn’t be granted because the distance and traffic would have thrown us too far off schedule.

Our trip to Great Britain was wonderful. I guess they don’t call it Great for no reason. But as with any expensive trip, you will always wonder if it was worth the money spent. I guess that all depends on how much money you have and how much you like to travel. I definitely do not recommend that anyone go into debt on such a trip. There are way too many interesting places right here in the states that won’t bust your budget. 

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