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England and Scotland 2019: Happy Stops, Speed Touring, Brews, and Coos

20190908_172719Someday we will learn that booking an overnight transatlantic flight for after Market on Saturday is a terrible idea – but we haven’t yet. So, market day, hurricane that shut down pretty much all the other Maritime airports but ours, Big Stop supper, and getting super drenched – and the adventure was underway. Our flight was off to Toronto without delay and it was smooth sailing once we got up above the storm. Had several hours in Toronto before our midnight-ish flight to London… so since we were already exhausted, we found beer. And walked around.

We had the most miserable effing bitch ever (well, maybe not ever, but in the running) sharing our row from Toronto to London… and since we were late departing (our plane needed to be towed over to our gate and then everyone with their too much stupid luggage and no place to put it), that just left her with more time to loudly and rudely complain about everything – and especially that flight attendants should not be allowed to have luggage on the plane (how dare they want to wear clothes!?!). They were using the bins above our row, and senorita cranky-pants was livid that she could not put her stuff above her seat (senorita cranky-pants also had about 5 bags with her, so AC should have forced her to check some of it… or left it in Toronto… I was pretty tired already at this point… can you tell?). Eventually she shut the eff up (I also had earphones in) and the flight ended with her puking in a bag. I watched movies in between. Good times.

We made it to London around noon and so did our suitcases – hooray! Easy, peasy passport control (literally it was a scan and walk through the door situation) and our driver was waiting for us (because I’m totally like that after being up for many hours and knowing I would be up for many more… public transportation with luggage, no way!). About an hour later, we were at our hotel – DoubleTree by Hilton Tower of London. Nice location, nice hotel. Our room was about an hour from ready, so we decided eating would be a good idea – BrewDog for the win – close by, great craft beer, awesome menu. Then hotel, then we forced ourselves to walk around for a few hours… because time zones.

I wanted to visit the Tower of London on this trip, so I put our hotel for the first night near it on purpose. So we walked around it a bit since it was beautiful out, walked across Tower Bridge (I love that bridge – it is one of my favourite structures in the world), walked along the water on the other side of the Thames to London Bridge, back around to our hotel, Starbucks, bed time. We made it until at least 8pm (34+ hours awake).

The real day 1 – tasty breakfast at a restaurant in the hotel (Natural Kitchen) and then we went off to explore the inside of the Tower of London. It’s cool, and it wasn’t super busy when we were there, which was nice. They kind of control the flow through certain areas, and if busy, those areas would be TERRIBLE. It was neat to visit something that features so prominently in history, and that I actually do know some of the history of (I’m normally more of a learn some of the history of post visiting kind of person). We did not do a tour here, but we did stop to watch some of the performances. If you’re in London, it’s worth a visit.

Then it was time to switch hotels. We were doing the Costsaver England and Scotland Heritage tour – and while I am not ever going to complain about visiting amazing places, coach tours are not my favourite. I don’t like sitting still for long periods of time and seeing things out the window, and sometimes they have people that make you all murdery… but I did have a voucher that covered a chunk of the price of the trip, so we opted to give it a go. Part of the package included hotel nights in London, but with free time to do whatever we wanted. So we moved to the Hilton Hotel Olympia London. This is a rundown Hilton, but it was clean and had a great breakfast buffet. The location wasn’t too bad either – on Kensington High Street, near tons of shops, not too far from a couple of Underground stations, and about a 20 minute walk from Kensington Gardens/Palace.

I had two things I really wanted to do in London – The Tower and a vegan diner in Camden Market. We didn’t want to plan too much because we knew we would be at the mercy of someone else’s schedule the rest of the trip. Once we were sorted at the hotel, we grabbed an Uber and headed to Camden Market. Our Uber driver was an awesome tour guide, telling us about what we were driving by, and even detouring to show us the famous Abbey Road zebra crossing. Camden Market is pretty cool actually. There’s TONS of shops there, and it’s set in what used to be stables. Rudy’s Dirty Vegan Diner was awesome! And were I capable of eating all the things, we would have tried more stuff at several other stalls in the market.

Day 2 – We had another day in London, so we decided to check out the hop on hop off bus situation (we used Big Bus). It was beautiful out and it was a great way to see some more of London. We did the three of the four routes – some of which just as transportation close-ish to our hotel, getting off to walk around Buckingham Palace, through St. Jame’s Park, up to Trafalgar Square and Leicester Square, and over to check out Hamley’s toy store. Supper at the Goat Tavern (the oldest pub on Kensington High Street, from 1695), a few stops for bits and bobs for the bus (I like snacks), and called it a night.

Next up – time to join the tour. From here, we enter a whirlwind of early mornings (well, not that early for us), putting out luggage out, buffet breakfasts, and getting on and off the bus.

So, the bus tour. We were the youngest ones on the bus by about an average of 2 decades. I don’t really care if someone is older or younger than me, I just care that they aren’t ignorant assholes. Mostly, the bus people were fine. Some of them were not. Mostly we kept to ourselves (which is not like me at all) and we always have a great time getting up to our own things. Once we were all loaded up, we headed to Windsor for our first stop. We only had about an hour here, so it was more of a loo and break than a chance to see anything. You could see the back corner edge of Windsor Castle (and you really need a lot more time to tour that property). We walked around, had a beverage, saw a train and a Lego royal couple, and back to the bus.

Next up – Bath. Something you have to know going in with coach tours is that sometimes you have to decide between eating, drinking, sightseeing, shopping or whatever when you are on a tight schedule… unless you walk fast, and we do. We had some lunch and craft beers at Bath Brew House (recommend) and then spent the rest of the time walking around exploring. We opted to not visit the actual baths and walk around to see more, but it’s a really nice city. I’d visit again. Day 1, second stop – left late because someone couldn’t find the bus.

Our hotel for the night was Hatton Court, near Gloucester, on the outskirts of the Cotswolds. Our room here was lovely and the property was quite nice. We had a nice drink on the patio, basking in the sun like lizards. The first included group dinner of the tour here. Food was fine, but we didn’t kick around long after the eating finished. We walked around the property and had a nice break from all our bus-mates.

A bit of a long bus day coming up today… and Costsaver forces the guides to make people rotate seats on the bus – cause otherwise people are whiny assholes who complain that guides play favourites or so-and-so kept hogging the front seat – so begin confusion here. Not us, them. We left around 8am, stopped in Stafford for a happy stop, and then on to Chester. In Chester we brought on a local guide who was supposed to walk us around for 30 minutes. We are physically incapable of walking the required pace to keep up with the slowest member of the group – and the guide wasn’t our style, so we ditched. We let our tour guide Darren (he was excellent, by the way… as was our driver Phil) know (because not complete assholes and didn’t want them wondering where the eff two people went) and he laughed and said he wondered how long we were going to last with the group. And we now know the answer to that question is one day.

Chester is really cool – I love the preserved Tudor architecture. We found beer (Brewhouse and Kitchen – Chester), explored some roont (ruined) stuff, watched an epic battle in the remains of a Roman amphitheatre, walked the city walls (Chester is the only city in Britain that still has the full circuit of its defensive city walls in tact), saw the cathedral and city hall, and explored the Rows. I’d come back here too.

Next up, we decided to take part in an optional tour to Wales (Llangollen). While the scenery was lovely, it really was too much time on the bus adding this in. It was an hour or so to our stop, an hour of walking around (we’re not big on shopping, so we really do just wander around… or find tasty beverages… like cider!… well, Greg had beer)… and then another hour back. Unfortunately, the local guide from Chester came to Wales with us… and he did not stop talking the entire drive, except for a brief period when we got to listen to a not very good recording of his child’s choir performing some song in Welsh. Oh well, I have excellent blocking out skills.

Liverpool for the night and free time away from the bus! Our hotel (Ibis) was conveniently located across from Albert Dock, so there was eats, we visited the Beatles, walked up to see the Cavern club (where the Beatles were said to have gotten their start – I haven’t confirmed this), and more wandering. I’d come back here too.

On to the lake district of England for a wee steam train ride and a cruise on Lake Windermere. This area is quite lovely, but I would not call a cruise on this lake the most exciting thing ever… but it was definitely nice to be outside, since we were having pretty nice weather. After the cruise, we had an hour in Bowness to grab some lunch (and maybe we were thirsty). About this point, we had figured out we had a few prize assholes on our bus – people that are apparently more important than everyone else (you all know much I love that quality in a person) and should never have to queue and should just go to the front no matter what. For my own entertainment, I may have occasionally started blocking said important persons from cutting the queue. Maybe. A quick stop to Gretna Green (this was really a loo stop) to finish out the afternoon. Scotland, nice to meet you!

Our hotel for the night was the Ibis Glasgow City Center. This was a great location for us because we don’t mind walking a a bit to get where we are going… and it was not in the middle of nowhere… so we were off to explore soon after we landed. Shilling Brewing Co (because thirsty… and hungry… good beer) and George Square and a few hours of walking around. Glasgow is gritty and lovely – definitely would return.

Up into the Highlands we went. It was raining most of the day, so that helped – but this day hurt my soul a little bit. So much amazing beauty and places to climb and explore – that we got to see out the window of the bus. But now I know that I need to go back (though really, I knew this before we even got there). We did a boat tour around Loch Lomond, drove through Glencoe and on to Fort William (for lunch and some more exploring). It was so overcast you could barely see Ben Nevis (highest mountain in Britain) – and it was pretty cold and windy. If I never hear Glencoe or Loch Lomond again, it’ll be great. I’m pretty sure Darren knew he was torturing us playing three versions of Loch Lomond in a row – though one of them was a little rock and roll and slightly better… you know the song, even if you don’t think you do… “You’ll take the high road and I’ll take the low road, And I’ll be in Scotland afore you. Where me and my true love will never meet again, On the bonnie, bonnie banks of Loch Lomond” … spoiler alert – we may hear this many more times before we leave Scotland.

Our hotel for the night was Laggan Hotel. I’m quite sure Trafalgar (parent company of Costsaver) actually owns this property, so we were the only ones there. It has a lot of personality and beautiful views. Our room had that kind of dank and musty smell, but it was otherwise totally fine… and it had tartan carpets! There may have been a few too many stuffed dead animals hanging on the walls for me though. Before we settled for the night, we visited the Leault working sheepdog farm, where we got a display of how the dogs round up sheep, and more importantly, we got to visit with the some sheep dog puppies. The person who did our demo had a lot to say about a lot of things, pretty much none of which was politically correct in any way. Whatever you do, don’t be a fat teacher who steals chocolate from kids lunch boxes because they are supposed to eat lettuce and tofu… and definitely, do not, under any circumstances, be a vegetarian or someone who cares about climate change. I think you had to be there.

We had our second included group dinner (breakfasts were included everyday on the tour, and then 2 dinners and the rest of it was fend for yourself – which is absolutely fine with us) – food was good, dinner mates were fine, there was a nice bar… all good.

Today was one of my faves of the entire trip… because highland coos… and St. Andrews (which I’ll get to in a bit). Apparently I could also only take photos horizontally, ha! Blair Castle to start the day… we just did a quick zip around, because I much prefer roont (ruined) castles. It’s the ancestral home of clan Murray, and the current Duke lives in South Africa. That would be an interesting call to get right? Hi, are you Bruce Murray? Yes, ok great. So, you just inherited a castle and a bunch of land in Scotland. Can you pop over? Have a great day!

The castle is fine, but the gardens are nicer, so we spent most of the time walking around here… and watching ducks eat ground apples. From here, to Pitlochry to pick up the people who didn’t want to go to the castle, and a quick bit of time to walk around. As we were leaving the bus, Darren specifically warned us that the less time we spend here, the more time we get to spend in St. Andrews. But someone was late at the castle (the same person who was late in Bath… and we could have left without her, but nice people, including me, spoke up that she was missing)… and then people were late again in Pitlochry. Jinxed.

So what did we find in St. Andrews? The Old Course, which is admittedly pretty interesting, even though I don’t golf. But Greg does, so it was extra cool for him. St. Andrews was my favourite. Why? Because roont stuff!!! So was I irritated for a brief period that bus tools robbed me of 45 minutes there? Yes. It quickly passed and I returned to my go-with-the-flow self, but yes. The ruins of the cathedral are amazing and I could have spent hours there (I got 30 minutes or so, so better than nothing)… and we did a walk by of the ruins of the castle (they didn’t look as amazing, so I survived not getting to go in). St. Andrews stays on the list. You should go there. It looks to be a pretty interesting place – but don’t go during golf, unless it’s on purpose, because chaos.

Next hotel – Airth Castle Hotel and Spa. Don’t get excited. Just because castle is in the name doesn’t mean we stayed in the castle. We stayed in the other building. There are rooms in the castle, but coach tours don’t get those. Our room was big and clean, but this property is super rundown (and they generally get terrible reviews because of it – a lot of being accused of bait and switch, since the website shows lovely rooms, and then most people end up with the ones with “period charm” in the building we were in… I’m a travel agent, of course I researched this stuff) – the restaurant area is nice, I didn’t check out the spa. We stayed here for two nights. I personally would have preferred to stay in Edinburgh… since we drove back and forth into Edinburgh twice from here (45 mins each way – but it did mean we got to drive by the Kelpies several times – amazing, giant sculptures of horses on the side of the motorway). But why would they put you in the city when they can leave you in the middle of nowhere? So you can book their optional experiences. We’re on to your tricks, coach tour companies. It was a Scottish Night this night – very touristy and exactly as you would expect, except super long. I wouldn’t say the performers weren’t talented, but it’s just not really my thing. The food was only ok, the room was set up in a way that half the people there faced away from the entertainment (round tables), service was bad… but, open bar! There’s always a silver lining…

And then we went to Edinburgh for real the next morning. We picked up another local guide here (ugh!) and drove around in the bus for like an hour in traffic doing a “tour” – dodging closed roads all over the place because apparently yet another Fast & Furious movie is being shot there. The annoying local guide was also supposed guide us through Edinburgh Castle… but Darren was merciful and gave us our tickets and we were never seen again… until 5 minutes before we had to be back on the bus. FREEEDDDOOOMMMM!!!!!

Edinburgh Castle is nice, and there’s some crown jewels there (I don’t get excited about those), and it was neat to see… but it’s not really something you need to spend a lot of time at. It really looks more impressive from further away. Post-castle, off we went to explore around, had some eats and drinks (several drinks) at Rose St Brewery – it was super nice to have many hours in a place so we could have a longer lunch, if we were thirty. Spent some time walking around the Royal Mile, and then it was back to the bus, and back out to Airth.

This evening’s option, dinner and another less touristy Scottish show at the Torphichen Inn… more bagpipes, more addressing the haggis, another highland dancer, and some live music – but this was just our bus group and the food was a lot better. Progress.

Another longer day on the bus as we made our way back to England. We stopped at the border between Scotland and England for a whiskey toast, at the Robin Hood Bar & Restaurant for some lunch, and at a remaining piece of Hadrian’s Wall.

We spent a couple of hours in York – and by this time, I admit, we were all churched and architectured out. We spent some time watching a busker and eating a pasty, we had some beer at Brew York Brewery, we walked a bit, and then ducked into another pub for the rest of the time we had there (and found a couple of other bus mates – not annoying ones – and Darren). Darren had bought us all kit-kats, claiming they were apparently invented in York and were called Yorkies or something (he had actually brought us local treats to try in a few other places as well, and whiskey!)20190917_193140It was mid evening already when we got to our hotel for the night in Bradford (Jurys Inn Bradford). It was in a central location, but things were mostly closed already when we got there. We had a quick walk around and took a look at town hall and the nearby fountains. It’s known for being the place in England to get curry, but Greg was catching his traditional holiday plague and we took it easy for the night. We did watch Great British Bake Off live though – so there’s that.

On the last day of our coach tour, Costsaver gave to us… a happy top in Leicester (where Greg’s family is from) with a Starbucks! and a visit to Stratford-upon-Avon, birthplace of Shakespeare. We were well and truly done with the bus and the other people on it, even the nice ones, by this point. We had a nice lunch in the Garrick Inn (that place has loads of characters), walked around, found a treat (vegan bakery), said our goodbyes to Darren (he really is an excellent guide and without him, the bus portion of this journey would have been so much worse… we had a lot of chances to chat with him and he was great about suggesting places we might want to visit when we ditched the group). A few hours later we were back in London, and that was that.

We were back at the same Hilton property for the last night, and we had a nice evening enjoying the beautiful weather and walking around Kensington Gardens. With London being so big and populated, it’s lovely that they have so many beautiful green spaces. We weren’t flying out until late the next afternoon, so in the morning, we took a stroll to see if the Doctor was in and explored Hollard Park. Then we were off to Heathrow (get better coffee shops in T2 Heathrow!), had some lunch at London Pride (a Fuller Brewery pub – since we have yet to make it out to tour that brewery… next time), flew back to Ottawa (with no one who needed to be throat-punched in our row), ate again, and flew home to Fredericton.

We knew what we were getting into with a coach tour (we did one with Trafalgar 12 years ago), and we opted to do it anyway… and while there may be a touch of whining in this post, it’s really more there for comedic effect. We always have a great time when we travel and this was no exception. The UK really has more than their fair share of stunning beauty – both natural and architectural – and I really love spending time there. Am I going to book another coach tour right away? No. Will I return to England and Scotland? Absolutely. We covered a lot of ground and saw a lot of amazing stuff… and if nothing else, buses are great for napping. I don’t really recommend 9 different hotel rooms in an 11 night period though – even as light packers, that gets old fast.

Ange out.