Category Archives: England

Londontown

Believe it or not, this world traveler had never been to London until now. We came to rectify this situation and to visit friends. Also so we could see if I loved it so much that we would decide to move here (probably not since my phobia of large crowds is growing, but it’s a pretty impressive city).

While everyone swears that it never rains like it was when we arrived, well, it was raining like it was (vigorously, for hours straight). And I’m pretty sure I’ve figured out the weather pattern in Europe: if you need to walk from public transportation to your place of resting, with luggage in tow, it will rain. And then if you want to walk long distances, or go for a hike, it will rain. This seems to be the case throughout the UK at least. But don’t worry about us. Despite the rain, we made it to London and used the opportunity to spend some good QT with old mates. (Also, I have like zero pictures except for when it is not raining, hence the near zero photos I have of spending QT with old mates.)

One reason London is awesome is that a lot of awesome people live here. Among them, our friend Billy, who graciously let us stay with him at his apartment that he had barely even moved into yet. And I mean barely, he still had no WiFi, nor hot water for the first few days! Luckily we are used to not showering (see: our entire six month backpacking trip through Asia). And one of the best parts of staying there was its location: Chelsea. What a beautiful area. On the walk from his flat to the nearest tube station, you pass these stunning city mansions that I would just die to live in. And I quickly learned that London is similar to Los Angeles in that it kind of feels like a massive collection of suburb-ish neighborhoods. Surely there’s at least one that’ll tickle your fancy.

High on the list of awesome people now living in London: my oldest friend, Kaitlin, and her super Irish (and super awesome) husband-to-be. We spent lots of time reminiscing and partying like it was ’99. Because I actually did spend New Years Eve of Y2K with Kaitlin, though we spent that sober and most likely playing dress-up in her basement because we were just that cool at age 13. Anyhow, our rendezvouses were a perfect excuse to check out another, less touristy neighborhood in London: Chiswick. We visited her flat to love on her adorable fluffball of a cat, Holden, and walk the Chiswick high street. This ‘hood was much more my speed, and I imagine if I did live in London I’d opt for something with this calmer, less crowded, somewhat residential feel.

The hostess with the mostest, she also took us on a walking tour to Kensington Palace, Hyde Park and the surrounding area.

During our days on our own in Londontown we got out and did lots of walking around some of the city’s other more touristy bits. The scene at Big Ben and Westminster Abbey is insanely crowded, and since large crowds tend to give me the heebie-jeebies, we took our snap-snaps and headed on. Pushing our way through the masses of tourists (I know, I know, I’m one of them, but still, they are, and I am, annoying), to see Trafalgar Square, Piccadilly Circus and the fancy schmance ‘hood of Mayfair.

One of the highlights of our visit to London was high tea. As you may or may not know, I practically live and breathe for scones, and clotted cream is the peanut butter to my jelly, the butter to my cup, the knick to my knackered. I did a bit of research on hotels to visit for this uber-English tradition, and decided to go with the Athanaeum for two major reasons. First, they do not have a crazy dress code (I’m realizing more and more that I am good at packing for extended trips to Asia, not so much fancy Europe… but don’t worry I’ve been shopping to correct that. Stay tuned for (gasp!) an outfit change in the upcoming posts, including what may or may not be a red leather jacket I purchased at an Amsterdam flea market), and more important, they offer what is called the “Gentleman’s Tea,” so there’s something for everyone to enjoy. Kaitlin and I of course opted for the classic crustless finger sandwiches and cakes alongside our scones and champagne, while Alan got to savor his with a suet pastry crusted miniature beef steak and British Ale Pie, wild boar sausage roll, homemade seasonal terrine, chili cheese straws with decadent ‘Welsh Rarebit’ dipping sauce, warm wookey hole cave-aged mature cheddar and crispy bacon scones, hot and sticky mini toffee pudding, a wedge of whisky fruit cake, homemade whisky chocolate truffles, and a dram of Scotch whisky (but of course). The leisurely experience certainly doesn’t come in under budget, but it’s a boatload of food, which is essentially unlimited and of course worth it in my opinion (I think Alan’s also). We rolled out of there satiated and then some.

To walk off our “tea” (I’m embarrassed to say that we barely touched the tea!), we wandered over to Buckingham Palace, through Wellington Arch and Knightsbridge and into Harrod’s for a stroll. While we didn’t purchase anything due to aforementioned tea feast, that place is pretty amazing (if a bit hectic and pricey). I’d love to head back there one day for picnic supplies (and maybe a designer purse).

On another afternoon (where we got some sun for a change!), we walked along the South Bank of the Thames River. This area was fun and lively, filled with shops, restaurants, pubs, the occasional historical site and the coup de gras: Borough Market. This might be our favorite thing in London (surprise, surprise, it involves food!). I actually had to convince Alan to go here. When I told him it was a fresh foods and prepared foods market, his response was “we’ve seen a million of those.” (I know this is so out of character for Alan, so, in full disclosure, he was fighting a cold.) Ah, but we’ve seen a million markets because we love markets! And this was no exception. Yummy samples, fresh fruits and veggies, and tasty prepared foods. Win win, win.

And of course, we walked across the London Tower Bridge, stopping to take selfies in front of it. An obligatory act.

Another area we adored is Shoreditch. While we’re probably not hipster enough to live here, it was much fun to walk around and admire the street art. As you can probably guess, this part of town has a much younger, hipper (hipster) vibe, with loads of bars, graffiti, and even a food truck courtyard. The highlight involved… wait for it…food! No, but really, it was also the experience. Next time you’re in London, take a stroll round Shoreditch and then head over to Brick Lane for some bomb and cheap Bangladeshi/Indian food dinner. But don’t walk into the first restaurant you pass, walk up and down the street and let yourself be reminded of the crazy world that is India as you are accosted by men hawking their menus to you and offering you a deal should you choose their establishment for your Indian fix.

You’ll notice the conspicuous absence of many touristy things done here, most notably visiting any of the many (mostly free!) world renowned museums. Well, we weren’t feeling very arty or history-y. And to top it off, Alan (the make things happen-er of the pair) was sick most of our time here. And when you travel non-stop for a year plus, you give yourself permission to skip some of the “unskippable” things sometimes. We need reasons to come back, right?!

Last, but not least, of our reunions in London was an evening with Marie, Alan’s (well, really more Kenny’s) former French au pair, who now lives in London. We met up at the Science Museum for what they call “lates,” which is basically an event where regular activities like the zoo, or the science museum, turn into bars and interactive exhibits for the night. (Surely this counts as visiting a museum even if it’s not art or cultural!) It was great to meet Marie, and it’s hard to go wrong with a silent disco.

Practical Info

Transportation: We arrived at King’s Cross on a train from Edinburgh. It took ~4.5 hours and cost £65 each. London is huge, and getting around could involve anything from walking, to multiple buses and trains or even boats. If you plan on using public transport more than once or twice, invest in an Oyster Card. It costs £5, which in theory you can get back, and then you top up and the rides cost way less than paying single fares each time.

We departed on an easyJet flight to Amsterdam from Stansted airport. London has several airports, and none that you’re likely to use is particularly convenient. Stansted involved a taxi ride to Victoria Coach Station followed by a two-hour bus ride (cost £21.50 for two tickets with fees). There is also an express train from Liverpool Station. The point is, do your research on all your options including where apparently cheap airline flights leave from and how the extra time and cost of getting there impacts the analysis vs. other flights or trains etc.

Accommodation: We stayed with Billy in Chelsea, a quieter area with many nice bars and restaurants and a wealthy clientele. Most visitors will want to stay some place a little more central. I am far from an expert, but here is my quick take: Knightsbridge is more central, loaded with wealthy Arabs and their super-cars. Mayfair is posh and maybe a little boring, but pretty central. Soho, Piccadilly Circus, Oxford Circus etc. are more crowded, in parts very touristy, but also the most central. We liked the South Bank walk (from the Royal Festival Hall to Tower Bridge) and perhaps you could stay there. If you like more of a hipster vibe, consider Shoreditch (there is an Ace Hotel there).

Food and Drinks: High tea at The Athenaeum was a lovely way to pass an afternoon. Jenni chose this place in part because it offers a gentleman’s tea, which includes lots of savory dishes with beef or bacon and a dram of whisky (the whisky selection at this hotel is legit). It is also pretty much all you can eat and does not have a strict dress code.

Dinner at Aqua Nueva with Kait and Sean was great, and there is a lovely patio for drinks with views. Gourmet Burger Kitchen is a chain, but quite good. Same for Carluccio’s. We had drinks at Babylon at the Kensington Roof Gardens, and I think maybe there is some part that wasn’t open for our visit and this part may have flamingoes?

A meal at one of Brick Lane’s several Indian/Bangladeshi restaurants is an experience. Prepare to be harassed by hawkers offering specials and discounts. Many are not so well-reviewed, but we chose Sheba and it was delicious. And London-cheap at £31 for three people.

Activities: London is home to several world-class attractions and museums, many of which are free and virtually none of which we visited. Two friends told me the Churchill War Rooms is their favorite. Two others picked the Victoria and Albert. I won’t try to list them all here. Several people said the Tower of London is a great experience. London is also known for somewhat reasonably priced theater.

I read good reviews and a friend recommended London Walks tours.

August 25-30, 2014 (Monday-Saturday)

The Lake District

My first foray into England was everything I ever wanted it to be, and more. I was almost too nervous to start writing this post because I wanted to do justice to the place we stayed, which is my most highly recommended accommodation from this venture to date. We stayed at the Hazel Bank Country House in England’s Lake District, which is as wonderful as its environs are beautiful.

Given our budget (not super low as you can probably gather, but we’re not staying at the Ritz every night for a year and a half) and our moderate distaste for discomfort (hey, champagne taste, right?) we tend to stay generally at mid-range hotels and B&Bs and thus our accommodation rarely makes or breaks a particular destination for us. But Hazel Bank, and its most wonderful proprietor, Gary, absolutely made this place for us. This is not to say you wouldn’t enjoy the Lake District staying elsewhere (as we’re certainly no experts on the surrounding hotel options and the beauty of this place speaks for itself in our pictures), but we would highly advise against it, because the experience at Hazel Bank was just so sigh-in-contentedness good.

Gary is the real deal hospitality maven. He is funny and engaging, and born for this job. It takes a certain personality and skill-set to succeed in this business, and he has got it. There is an element of hospitality that cannot be bought, but it can be found at Hazel Bank.

The grounds are lovely. The small hotel is situated in an English manor style home on one of those quintessential rolling green lawns, nestled right into the mountains and lush, verdant landscape that the Lake District affords. White (and the odd black) sheep dot the emerald scenery vistas from the rooms, and you’ll occasionally be graced by the presence of a red squirrel while eating breakfast or dinner on site. The rooms are elegantly appointed with crystal chandeliers, flowing curtains and even a crystal decanter with a taste of sherry and two crystal glasses. Ours offered a beautiful view out the front yard, which was a favorite spot of ours what with its sprawling lawn, croquet course, beautiful old tree, and ample seating for a late afternoon cocktail; the absolute best place to enjoy a post-hike gin and tonic or glass of rose.

The food is, of course, also part of the experience. The included breakfast is English and scrumptious. I believe I ate crumpets every morning. And Alan tried a new treat: smoked kippers. This, apparently, is a small fish, and while tasty, the bone removal process proved too much work for Alan’s first meal of the day. I and the rest of the hotel guests did, however, enjoy watching him learn to maneuver them. The real deal, though, is the dinner service. The four courses are served with a high class flair (table setting with four forks, of course), preceded by canapés and pre-dinner drinks in the lounge, followed by tea, coffee and/or stronger libations for those fancying a brandy or scotch whiskey also in the lounge. The whole process is wonderful. The food is delicious, with a special mention to Donna’s lovely desserts and the lamb crackling that was just out of this world. Gary is expertly skilled to assist in helping you choose a wine to accompany said fare. And the whole ordeal, while classy and civilized to the nth degree, is never stuffy. Gary is attentive yet never intrusive, checking in frequently on your needs and entertaining with his masterful conversationalism (if you will) and sharp British wit.

Of course, the main attraction of the Lake District is the natural beauty and its attendant activities. Perhaps the best amenity that Hazel Bank can offer (next to Gary) is its proximity to Mother Nature’s playground and the convenience it offers for getting out to these hikes.

We were blessed with perfect hiking weather our first day in the district and so we headed out to Gary’s recommended hike, located ever so conveniently, just outside our door. Literally across the street, we began climbing up a steep gully, past an old slate mine, to the top of High Spy.

The views were incredible from the get go, with heather covered hills rising above the green fields and valleys below. The wildflowers were so lovely, lots of purple, with the heather dominating, but also accented by thistle and bluebells.

We continued on, meandering down the long mountain ridge as the views picked up, culminating in a 360º view at the top of Cat Bells where you overlook the lake (Derwentwater), fields of sheep, Keswick and some smaller villages.

We backtracked slightly, and then headed down the mountain to quickly explore the tiny town of Grange before walking back to Hazel Bank along the river. We were rewarded with cocktails in the front yard before freshening up for dinner, and we had to remark on how wonderful the experience was. This is probably our favorite way to travel, or, well, live: being active in beautiful nature and then coming home to comfort and good food and drink. Not bad, not bad at all.

We were also perhaps lucky to have a lovely group of people sharing the experience at Hazel Bank with us, and we very much enjoyed our chats over pre- and post-dinner drinks, and bumping into them up on the mountains (Hazel Bank owned the ridge that day!). The friendly vibe was always palpable, and one of my favorite memories was when another guest requested a curry with dinner on her last night. Gary got a kick out of this, and after busting her chops that night, he surprised her (and us all) with a curried chicken on naan canapé the next evening. The convivial ambiance crescendoed. And last of the company, but certainly not least, I should mention that Gary and Donna have a dog. And not just any dog, the sweetest little boxer, called Toby. I have fallen madly in love with this scrumptious pup.

We briefly explored some of the other areas in the district. We fit in another, shorter hike the next morning for fear of the weather rumored to be coming in. This one also had us walking straight out the door of our hotel and up to Dock Tarn, passing very few people along the way.

We stopped in the small village of Watendlath for a cuppa tea. I love all these little villages and the little tea shops. This one didn’t happen to be my favorite as they had no clotted cream for their scones (the gall!) and were weirdly unfriendly, but it is pretty picturesque, what with the stove, framed badger needle points, and yard full of gnomes.

After that few hour hike before the rain really began, we went for a drive over the Honister Pass to Buttermere Valley. The landscape is much more severe over on this side of the park, a sense that was amplified by heavy rains that caused all the sheep to huddle up by the trees and fences for shelter. The area is more stark and less crowded over there, with rushing streams tumbling down valleys to greet beautiful lakes. We visited the cozy Kirkstile Inn for scones with clotted cream and (obvi) more tea.

To sum it up, in case you couldn’t already tell, I’m mad for England. The whole place (and I base this solely on my experience at one hotel in the Lake District and the fact that people are exceedingly punctilious in keeping left on the motorways) is just so civilized. Having flown into Liverpool, I of course had to plug in my iPhone and play some Beatles as soon as we landed. You can’t drive out of the John Lennon airport without paying homage. But we have some embarrassing news to report. We are ignorant and unworldly and ethnocentric; we had no idea that England uses feet and miles. Here we were thinking that Americans were the only ones. How did we not know this? We were also made to feel a fool for not having an impressive arsenal of odd sayings, such as mad as a box of frogs and full of beans (which means energetic, though it sounds like it would mean full of bologna).

Practical Info

England’s Lake District is a large area in the northwest of the country. All of the Lake District is within the county of Cumbria, but not vice versa. In general, the south and east of the Lake District is a little gentler and more crowded, while the north and west is more rugged and less crowded. We stayed in Rosthwaite, which is a settlement in Borrowdale and is about 5-6 miles from Keswick, the largest nearby town. Apart from how fabulous our B&B was, we really liked this area for its gorgeous scenery and cozy ambience. It is less dramatic and isolated feeling (and admittedly less visually impressive) than Buttermere and environs, and arguably prettier and certainly less crowded than Windermere, Ambleside, etc. Our friend said that for isolation and mountain grandeur he would recommend the Wasdale Head Inn, and in any event would skip Windermere as it is so developed and touristy.

We never drove through Windermere, but we did pass through Grasmere and Ambleside to check them out. The former is pretty small and charming while the latter is a bit bigger, but it still seemed quite appealing. Jenni likened it to a ski town. We strongly considered staying in Cartmel as it is supposed to be an adorable village and foodie haven, but we passed because the mountain scenery and nearby hiking reportedly fall short of other areas.

Transportation: We arrived to Liverpool airport and rented a car for the 2+ hour drive to Rosthwaite. Both hikes we did allowed us to walk straight from our B&B. We also drove around the area some, including over Honister Pass where the scenery is magnificent. There are some buses and often boat transport on the lakes, which means you could do a one way hike without shuttling a car. I think moving between valleys on public transport is probably quite a bit harder than within.

Accommodation: We stayed at Hazel Bank Country House, and as covered above we absolutely loved it. There are so many options in the area, including several very well-located hostels.

Food and Drinks: Pretty much all our meals were taken at Hazel Bank, and the quality was great. The lamb cracklin at dinner one night was fall out of your chair good. Breakfast is included while a four-course dinner costs £24.95/person. We enjoyed a different reasonably priced bottle of wine each night. Our one off-premises bite was at the Kirkstile Inn in Loweswater. It is a cozy pub, the scones were enormous and delicious, and I think they have some proprietary beers. We also stopped at the Caffle House Tea Room in Watendlath for a cuppa. It was cute but not as friendly or warm as we would have liked.

There are various well-regarded dining options around the Lake District. Perhaps most famous of these is Michelin-starred L’Enclume in Cartmel.

Activities: The main activity for most visitors is walking/hiking. Our first day we went up a gully on the western side of Borrowdale past some old slate mines to a saddle. From there, one could make a steep ascent to Dale Head. Instead, we went right for the ridge walk encompassing High Spy, Maiden Moor & Cat Bells before backtracking a touch and descending to Grange and then returning along the river. It was 8-9 miles and the views of the valley and Derwentwater were terrific.

Our second day we headed south right out Hazel Bank’s driveway until perhaps a quarter mile beyond the Stonethwaite bridge when we veered left and made a steep ascent up to Dock Tarn and then descended to the tiny village of Watendlath before returning straight to Hazel Bank’s back door. This hike was perhaps 5 miles, and the views are a little less grand but it was beautiful and far less crowded as we passed only a few people. I don’t know what rules apply, but just near the end of the steep stone stairs heading up to Dock Tarn there was a little grassy circle where a couple appeared to have camped. It was an epic spot with big views of Borrowdale.

The map we used for our area is the Ordnance Survey Explorer Map OL4 covering the North-western area. On our way out we considered walking to Easedale Tarn from Grasmere, which sounded nice. A very kind gentlemen we met at Hazel Bank gave us a pocket-sized book listing 10 of the best hikes in the Lake District. These are: a Skiddaw round; Helvellyn; Coledale Horseshoe; Little Dale Round; Scafell Pike; Great Gable from Honister; Bowfell & Esk Pike; Langdale Pikes; Fairfield Horseshoe; and Coniston Old Man.

August 6-9, 2014 (Wednesday-Saturday)