#gracetravels; 8 best parts of my UK adventure (PART II)

I set out to document the 8 best parts of my trip to the UK with my family last December, where I got to see a lot of cool things that I definitely couldn’t get enough of. Part I of my story is available here – #gracetravels; 8 best parts of my UK adventure (PART I) –  but if you’re done with that, here comes Part II.

 

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(5) Bilbury

The village of Bilbury is a traditional, rural village in Gloucestershire, famous for its stone cottages and trout farm by the river. Everything about this place is beautiful – the buildings each have their own homely glow and the clear, shallow tributaries of the river which run through the streets with their own slow, calming current. The main attraction is Arlington Row, a picturesque line of stone cottages that are built into the side of the small hill. If you’re a huge movie buff, Arlington Row was also a filming location for Stardust and Bridget Jones’ Diary, so you can bring out your inner Claire Danes/Colin Firth as you take in the Row’s quiet charm.

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The trout farm is also one of the village’s attractions, where you can walk in and see how authentic trout farming is conducted. You can eat the trout that are born and bred in the farm on site if you pay for it and are feeling hungry, but if you’re not, you can also walk around the perimeter of the farm and admire the lush greenery that surrounds it. If you look closely enough into the streams around the farm, you might actually see some escaped trout swimming to freedom, though catching them on your own is not advised, as those things are wicked fast and you will most definitely get wet. All in all, Bilbury’s unassuming but powerful old world aura drew me in the moment we stepped onto its streets.

 

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(6) Bath 

No pronunciation lesson here – Bath is pronounced like it the word looks, in the same way as “bubble bath”, which is actually quite close to what you will find in the attractions here. Bath is so named because of the famous Roman Baths that were once operated there. The Romans who landed in the UK in their great conquest to expand their empire found the natural hot springs in the area and called them Aquae Sulis, or “the waters of Sulis”. Sulis Minerva was the Roman goddess of wisdom and strategy, and she is also known as Athena in Greek mythology (if you are a Percy Jackson fan). People from all around the region came by Bath to make use of the curative properties of the hot springs, even way into the Georgian Era after the Romans left. If you’re wondering just as I did, no, you cannot bathe in the water anymore, there’s a reason why it’s green – but, at the end of the Roman Bath museum you can take a drink of the hot spring’s water, where it has been properly cleaned and 100% safe for consumption.

Apart from the Roman Baths, the Royal Crescent is another must-see in Bath. It’s a row of terraced houses laid out in the shape of a crescent moon, built in the 1700s. The buildings have had renovations done to their interiors, but the exterior stone facade and its signature ionic columns are gazetted and remain largely the same as they was 300 years ago. The place is now a residential, and as you would expect, the real estate there is priced as amazingly as it looks. If you’re a cash-strapped student like me, and you have to be content with just looking and not buying, the nearby Royal Victoria Park also has hot air balloon rides that run in summer, giving you a birds-eye-view of the Crescent for a better price. Like any high-end neighbourhood, coaches cannot access the road that runs parallel to the Crescent because of the noise, but the view from the park next door is much better for panoramic pictures.

 

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(7) Stonehenge

A designated UNESCO World Heritage Site and owned by the Crown, the mysterious site of Stonehenge is every bit as curious as you have read it to be. The Stonehenge site is actually quite far into some open grassland, so it takes a short 5-minute bus ride from the coach stop and museum shop before you reach the stones themselves. When we reached the site, we took a walking tour around the area and finally laid eyes on the monument itself. While archaeologists have for the most part figured out how the place was built, why it was built still remains an open question. You can wonder for yourself while looking at the stones and appreciating the way that the light from the sun leaves shadows of all angles around the site in its timeless manner.

You can’t step out and touch the stones, except during the Winter and Summer Solstice, where an exception is made and tourists are allowed to go onto the stones themselves. We missed the Winter Solstice by a day, but after seeing the throng of people who went via the local news reports, it was just as well that we went on a non-crowded day. The unobstructed view of Stonehenge from behind the rope barrier actually added to the marvel and mystique of the place and I left with a renewed interest in prehistoric monuments.

 

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(8) London 

Last, but certainly not least, there is London. But first, to clear a common misconception – that bridge in the picture above is Tower Bridge, not London Bridge. London Bridge is actually on the left of Tower Bridge in this photo, and looks much less ornate but still quite impressive, as the cheery boatman who brought us up and down the River Thames for a cruise-view of the entire city told us. According to him, the reason why the nursery rhyme goes “London Bridge is falling down” is because the people thought London Bridge was so much worse-looking than its neighbour that they wanted it to go down. I can’t verify the veracity of his story, but it did make for something amusing that enlightened me on one of the great mysteries of my childhood.

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There is also the Clock Tower, which houses the Great Bell that we know more affectionately as Big Ben. Pretty much every movie shot in London will make time for a sweeping camera shot to show the entirety of Big Ben, the Houses of Parliament and also Westminster Abbey. Whether you see it in the day or in the night, the architecture and grandness of the buildings oozes both an imposing and impressive charm as you take in the sight of the tall off-white walls and the great clock face in the distance. To complete the experience, stick around to hear Big Ben ring on the hour, or if you are a little short on time, just wait for the chimes from the Clock Tower which ring every quarter hour.

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Any Harry Potter fan will know that your trip to London is wasted without a visit to the one-and-only Platform 9 3/4. It takes a little skill to find the Platform in the crowded King’s Cross Station, but you will know it when you see it. There will be a queue of people, both young and old, probably donning the colourful scarves of the four Hogwarts houses and waiting for their turn to take a picture of the trolley sinking into the invisible barrier to the wizarding world. I joined the queue once I found it and put on my Slytherin scarf while I waited like a little kid for my turn. And no, the scarf does not fly because someone hid behind me and cast Wingardium Leviosa – a dedicated Harry Potter merchandise store staff stands there and devotedly flicks your scarf artfully in the air to give the effect.

You’re allowed to take your own picture (hence my own low-resolution version which I am posting because my dad took it) and also buy the one that is professionally taken inside the store which is located right next to the Platform, so saving money is a go at this travel stop. However, if you are a real Potterhead you will definitely find your wallet lighter after wandering into the merchandise store. You can buy everything from a life-size Hedwig to Hogwarts robes, the Marauder’s Map and the Elder Wand. A great place to stock up for the next Halloween and out-dress your friends with authentic wizarding gear.

And of course, no trip to London is complete without a visit to Hyde Park. The Winter Wonderland is pretty much everything that you imagine it to be – a veritable haven of Christmas goodies where the sound of laughter and the smell of baked goods fills the air. You will most definitely hear Mariah Carey’s All I Want For Christmas Is You playing somewhere in the background at any one time. If you want to experience the Park in its entirety, you will probably need a full day to go through the entire ground, with the many stores and carnival rides scattered all around. We only had about 1.5 hours, but it was enough for us to walk around the bulk of the stores and make our purchases while sipping on some warm mulled wine. The arts and crafts here make great gifts and souvenirs, and the foodstuff is probably made even more delicious because of the Christmas spirit that you can almost taste in the air. It was the perfect way for us to end our visit to the UK and leave for the airport with the happiest of memories.

 

And that concludes the mini-story I’ve written on my adventure to the UK:) I enjoyed every bit of this holiday and fully intend to come back, definitely for a longer time, to see more places and take more pictures. For now, I’m hitting the books, but in my continued effort to practice my descriptive writing (apart from my legal writing in school), there’ll be more to come on more than just my travels, so stay tuned!

Till next time!

❤ Grace

 

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#gracetravels; 8 best parts of my UK adventure (PART I)

I have always wanted to go to the U.K. – mostly to drink a lot of tea, and also to pretend I can be Hermione Granger for a few weeks. Granted, I still imagine living out my Hogwarts dream even here in sunny Singapore, but I finally got to go on a well-deserved holiday last December to the land of the Union Jack.

My parents have been bugging me to go for a family holiday since university started, but owing to the situation that is a SMU student’s life, we haven’t gotten around to that since my freshman year. Sad face. But the lack of a proper break since tertiary education started definitely made this particular holiday one to remember.

We made a bunch of stops all across the U.K., and they were all 120% awesome – refer Facebook for the photos I drained my iPhone battery to take – but to prevent spam, here are the 8 best parts totally worth sharing one more time, Part I.

 

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(1) Edinburgh

Before we start, I got an English lesson when I landed, courtesy of the airport public announcement system – it’s pronounced eh-din-brr-reh, not eh-din-berh. I proceeded to repeat that about five more times to myself till I got it but let’s move on to the actual sights of the city.

Fun fact: Edinburgh has a total population of about 500,000 and Scotland itself about 5,300,000. This part of the UK essentially has the entire population of Singapore, just spread out over a lot more land. Hence, the pace of life is much slower, there are no HDB-style blocks, and the streets are much less packed. A welcome change and a great place to kick off this adventure.

We walked around the city as far as our feet could take us and made the compulsory stops – Palace of Holyrood (the Queen’s Edinburgh residence), National Museum, Christmas Market and of course, the shopping district. I stepped into my first Primark here and did not leave for about 1.5 hours.

The highlight, of course, was Edinburgh Castle. The exterior view of the fortress is grand to say the least. We had to walk about up the hill to get into the very heart of the castle, but with a nice cup of hot chocolate from the lovely girl at the entrance and a camera to snap pictures, it was worth it. The olden architecture of each individual section and the beauty of the setting winter sun on the castle walls is something out of a history epic movie. The very top of the castle is also a great vantage point to see the whole city of Edinburgh below, and it is a magnificent view especially to those seeing it for the first time.

 

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(2) Gretna Green 

This place is really simple but yet truly picturesque. It’s a small village in Scotland with a pretty intriguing history. Couples used to come here to elope and get married under Scottish law, especially when they were below 21 and their parents had the right to veto their decision through this English legislation in the 1700s called Lord Hardwick’s Marriage Act. Far from the long arm of the oppressive Act, all you needed to get hitched in Gretna Green were two witnesses to your declaration, and the blacksmiths who worked there would essentially be the “priests” for the ceremony. Very convenient for medieval rebels who were done with their parents getting in the way.

Of course, the English legislation is no longer in force, but you can still get married here in about 15 minutes, subject to availability of the chapel. In other words, this is what Las Vegas would look like minus Caesar’s Palace, booze and slot machines – though, more accurately, Gretna Green was the little town which started the trend of surreptitious marriages, and the Americans followed suit. A sure stop for the romantic in you to bask in the centuries worth of love and passion that this place emanates.

 

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(3) Lake District/Windermere

“I wander’d lonely as a cloud
That floats on high o’er vales and hills,
When all at once I saw a crowd,
A host, of golden daffodils;
Beside the lake, beneath the trees,
Fluttering and dancing in the breeze.”

~ William Wordsworth, Daffodils (1804)

For the Lit students/teachers/fans, the haunting words of William Wordsworth will come to life when you step into Lake District. This place is serenity personified in the wooden buildings, pleasant smiles and still water of Windermere. Walking around the quiet streets invokes a sense of self-reflection and an appreciation for the wonders of creation. Here, I also found quite a large number of social enterprises supporting causes such as the needy elderly and heart disease, which was quite inspiring. I made my contribution by adding a few pre-loved dresses and tops to my wardrobe and also purchasing 1st edition copies of Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban/Goblet of Fire from stores we came by.

There was a cold fog that hung over the lake as we took a cruise on the waters, which heightened the both the beauty and mystery of the lake at the same time. The way that the lake rippled as the boat weaved through it and how the lights of the homes along the water lit up the bank like small lighthouses etched a dream-like and lasting memory. A definite must see – the peace that is in the very air of the town is quite cleansing for the cluttered mind, which I think most of us Singaporeans tend to have.

 

(4) York

Another landmark city which has been around for about 2000 years – the city is one of the great centers of historic and political events in the UK, having been through  the rule of the Romans, the Normans and finally the English. It’s surrounded by a stone wall that meets the River Ouse (pronounced ooze), which is a quaint but pretty river that lines the greenery of the outer city. True to its nature as a city which has seen the rule of many different nations and kings, the museum boasts a beautiful garden with simple and colourful flowers that emerge amidst the ruins of ancient walls and monasteries. Its religious history is anchored with the famous York Minster, which is the largest gothic cathedral in Northern Europe. Like all historic towns, the cathedral is located right in the heart of the city. I couldn’t find an angle which could capture the entirety of the cathedral to do it justice, but take my word for it, it’s amazing.

Apart from its historical/political background, another fun fact about York is its reputation as a chocolate-making town. Everyone’s favourite red-sleeved wafer chocolate, Kit Kat, had its humble origins right here in York, before Nestle acquired the Rowntree company that originally produced it and made it available to us all around the world. A lesser known but still as delicious Chocolate Orange also has its origins in this town – as the tour guide told me, it is the most unhealthy but also the best orange you will ever eat in your life. As a non-orange eater to begin with, I think that is the only orange I will ever be willing to eat.

Also, for the Harry Potter fans – the most famous magical street in JK Rowling’s literary universe, Diagon Alley, drew its inspiration from The Shambles, a former butcher street in York. Before the street turned into the tourist area that it is today, it was an open-air slaughterhouse and meat market. Hygiene laws and sanitary facilities weren’t enacted for butchers back then, so they bred and killed all of their livestock in the street itself and dumped the leftover blood and parts into the gutter. Thankfully, that isn’t the case now, and the street smells quite pleasant with scents of bakeries and coffee, but you can still see the hooks on the outer facade of some of the shophouses where the meat was once hung.

The way that the buildings are oddly angled in the narrow street, and the signs of all shapes and sizes that hang above the glass panels displaying the treasures lying within the stores breed the familiar sense of wonder in every kid who has grown up reading and watching the adventures of The Boy Who Lived. It’s easy to see why this place inspired Diagon Alley, with the unique building placement giving that feeling of one having stepped into a parallel universe full of strange and wondrous things. I didn’t find Ollivander’s but I did find a great used book store where I purchased my remaining five copies of the 1st edition Harry Potter books, making me a proud owner of all seven original 1st edition books – that was a magical end to the visit and a huge joy-bringer to the 11-year-old in me.

 

So that concludes Part I of my adventure; stay tuned for Part II, it’ll be even prettier and I promise I’ll find time to write it 🙂 till next time!

❤ Grace

 

*Part II has since been completed so you can continue reading here: #gracetravels; 8 best parts of my UK adventure (PART II) 😀