Exploring England, 2012

Monday, Jun 18, 2012 at 12:00

Member - John and Val

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Both of us have long Australian roots – about 6 generations worth that trace back to English and Scottish forebears, some of whom arrived here as convicts. We thought we had a reasonable understanding of British and Australian history, and of course we had seen plenty of British TV. Why would we want to make the long trip to visit England?

So when our eldest son, Rob, who had been living in London for about 3 years, proposed that we come for a visit we had some serious thinking to do. But of course we decided to go, primarily to spend time with Rob and take the opportunity to have a look at a country that has had so much bearing on who and what we are. John had not been overseas for many years and it was to be Val’s first overseas trip.

With a mixture of excitement and trepidation the next few months passed in a frenzy of detailed planning as we worked out what we wanted to see, then made the practical arrangements to turn ideas into reality. There was no shortage of advice, and the internet and Google Earth got plenty of use too as we narrowed down where to go, what to see, and how to make it all happen.

The final result was that we had a fabulous, hectic 6 week trip that really got us rethinking our notions of history and civilisation. But more of that in future blog instalments.

Anticipating that some EO members as unfamiliar with overseas travel as we were might be heading across for the Olympics we’ll start with the nuts and bolts of our trip, in the hope that our experiences may be of some use to those travellers.

We flew premium economy with Virgin Atlantic, booked right through from Canberra to Sydney to Heathrow with just a short stop in Hong Kong to refuel. The choice of airline came down to price, route and the fact that the premium economy seats had the largest amount of space in that category. We were very happy with how we were treated and had a comfortable trip, or as comfortable as a 22 hour flight can reasonably be.

Before we left in early May we were hearing news of long delays for incoming passengers clearing customs at Heathrow. When we arrived at terminal 3 about 6am it was rather quiet and we cleared customs in about 5 minutes. Apparently all the delays were at the new terminal 5 only and did not affect us at all.

Rob had a comfortable flat in London so we planned to base ourselves there for about half of the 6 weeks that we would be in England. For the rest of the time we chose 3 different areas to explore – around Cambridge and the fens (Northeast), The Lakes District (Northwest) and Yorkshire, and around Salisbury (Southern). In each area we rented a cottage and hired a car so that we could explore at our own pace. The rental and hire arrangements were made online from home, and by some minor miracle they all turned out very well, after a few quirky things were sorted out.

Cottages and B&Bs were booked through various websites – Cottages4you, HomeAway, and LateRooms. We quickly found that cottages are mostly available in one-week blocks, and that bookings usually start on set days (usually Saturdays). That required a bit of juggling of our itinerary, but the owners of some cottages were prepared to be flexible. The deposit for some of our accommodation could be made online using a credit card. But two of the cottages required a cash deposit within 7 days to confirm the booking. That presented some difficulties but fortunately Rob being on the spot was able to take care of that. One cottage where we stayed overnight was very trusting and only required a cash payment on departure – they could not accept a credit card.

We found that the three cottages and three B&Bs that we used were all clean and comfortable and as described on the website. We met all but one of the owners and they were friendly and helpful. However guest book entries revealed that most visitors are “locals” and the cottages had a few minor quirks that were not so suited to overseas visitors – like the need to take our own towels to one cottage, or beds only having a single doona, making sleep on warm nights a bit uncomfortable.

We used the web to book and pay for hire cars. We booked and paid through Compass Cars an Australian company that we found to be helpful once we got the hang of their website. The cars in England were supplied by Enterprise Rent-a-Car and we had nothing but praise for them. We used 3 different Vauxhaull Corsas (a 4 door hatchback, small by Oz standards, medium sized in the UK) – 2 were as new and the other had very low mileage. All were available when required, in immaculate condition and suited our needs very well. Enterprise also met us and delivered us to train stations as required for no extra charge. The young employees who drove us to the trains were mostly students doing a work placement with Enterprise, and all spoke in very positive terms about working with that company.

Before we left we decided it would be a good idea to have a GPS with us. We recognised that OziExplorer (our choice and constant guide for remote Aussie travel) was not well suited for English conditions. Never being ones to take an easy option, we purchased an Android tablet with impressive specs only to find that it did not have an inbuilt GPS and would not support one. So it was back to the USB GPS and the old tablet running Windows that we use in Troopy. Onto it we loaded Navigator, a free vector based GPS system that we found online. It comes complete with reasonable maps of England (and many other places as well). Before leaving Australia we loaded many of the points that we wanted to visit, allowing us to quickly set up routes for each day’s travel. For the price it all worked rather well, despite the little GPS failing in the middle of Cambridge when we had a train to meet. Fitted a new one and all went well.

Also before leaving home we purchased a British Rail Flexipass, allowing us 8 trips over 2 months anywhere on the British rail network. It was marketed as being at a substantial discount and only available to buy outside Britain. Although we did not use all 8 stages it was good value and was easy and flexible to use.

On the sightseeing front we joined both English Heritage and the Australian National Trust (which has a reciprocal arrangement with the British National Trust). These memberships gave us free entry to many of the places that we visited and were very good value. We also purchased London Passes which provide free entry to many London tourist venues, but these proved to be very poor value, at least for us who like to spend time at venues having a good look. London Passes come in blocks of 1, 2, 3 or 6 consecutive days, and it would be very difficult to fit in enough visits to justify the purchase price. A selling point was to avoid queues, but despite visiting many of the “big” London venues the only queues we encountered were due to security checks at the free venues (the major galleries and museums such as the National Gallery and Museum of Natural History are free). We found that 2 major venues in one day was as much as we could manage and at that rate we simply could not recoup the cost of the pass – especially since there were so many free venues to be fitted in as well.

We are novices when it comes to using public transport, but moving around London using the Tube turned out to by remarkably easy once we figured out the basics of the system. However doing it at rush times or with a deadline to meet might be quite a different matter. What did surprise us was the sheer physical effort required to negotiate lots of steps at the train stations and elsewhere as well. The huge escalators and occasional lifts helped a lot, especially if we had luggage to move. An Oyster card is a near essential in London. These cards accept cash or credit card payments and are simply swiped over a reader to access the tube and bus networks and pay for travel. They avoid the need to queue and be delving for cash buying individual tickets in train stations, which are usually busy and crowded. Trains come at 2 or 3 minute intervals and when the system is working it is great. But when things go wrong – and they do – the whole line seems to grind to a halt. We do wonder just how well London will cope with the Olympics!

So, thus prepared we set forth, and after a 22 hour flight we were in London. We’ll tell you about that in our next blog.
J and V
"Not everything that can be counted counts, and not everything that counts can be counted."
- Albert Einstein
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