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