Saturday, 8 September 2012

Eric’s Uninformed Travel Tips: England Edition

I would never claim to be a royalist…Or even one of those crazy plate-collecting royal family fans.  However, as a semi-educated student of history, I do have some respect for the link that Canada has with our polite, warm beer drinking Atlantic neighbors.  In fact, I would even go so far as to say I am glad we still support the monarchy, even if it is just because it distances us from being, “like America, just colder”.

We are NOT this...
So, for me, I feel that any chance to visit the historical homeland (there are A TON of Atkinsons in England…seriously…A TON) is one that should never be passed up. 
Plus…and this is a big plus…it’s English, which means to me that I get to have a momentary break from the madness that is living everyday in a culture you don’t fully understand (PS. I am talking about French culture here).   Seriously, both Julia and I have commented that when we go to England we immediately notice that things are easier…and it’s not because things run more smoothly, it’s because they run the way we, as Anglo-Saxons, expect them to run.
So let’s get down to business…
Locations visited in April, 2012:  London, Didcot, Oxford and Stonehenge, England.
Dates of trip: April 6-9, 2012
How did we get there: Train/car, about 2hrs to London on the Eurostar @ 200€/person return… (Isn’t European travel grand?) Then 40mins to Didcot (This train was not cheap FYI…I’d say we spent about 60£ each to go and return to London).  Thanks to our friends living in Didcot, we then drove to both Oxford (about 30mins) and Stonehenge (about 1.5hrs).
Where did we stay:  In London we stayed at the Radisson Edwardian Berkshire on Oxford St. which I recommend for the chance to say the name of the hotel in a snooty English accent alone…it cost about 100£/night. It was a really nice hotel in a good part of town.  The only downside is that it’s a bit away from the major tourist destinations. The real fun was where we stayed with some friends in their quaint home in the beautiful town of Didcot…0£/night…can’t beat that price!
I am not going to talk much about our time in London:
1. Because it was very short (we arrived late the night of the 6th and left in the afternoon on the 7th for Didcot)
2. Because I went back to London at least 1 other time in 2012 (At time of posting).  I will list 3 of the 100s of reasons to go to London though:
1.     Shopping
2.     Pubs
3.     Shows (Plays/Concerts and Musicals,  not “Coronation Street”)
Plus, its got these guys
 There, that’s all you get till I post about London more extensively in the future…
We arrived in Didcot via British rail and were truly instantly hit by the rural “quaintness” of the whole place.  If you don’t pay attention to ever present traffic and the odd development here and there you can almost feel like you’ve gone back in time. 
Small streets are lined with red brick homes that are all a bit mossy and stained with age…and there’s almost always a view of some sheep field off in the distance…really, amazing to see. As I mentioned, we were staying with friends, and their home did not disappoint, it fit into this mold quite perfectly. 
While we were staying in Didcot, our major preoccupations were with preparing a North American style Thanksgiving dinner and sharing it with Sarah and Chris (the aforementioned friends) and Chris’s mother (a small town Newfie) and father (a retired RAF serviceman).  We did however get out and explore a bit…here are what I consider my 3 highlights.
1.  The Didcot Railway museum:  Really something!  It had several working antique trains that you could ride in and was a filming location for Sherlock Holmes 2.
2.  The adjacent village of East Hagbourne: Beautiful little village with thatched roof homes galore…Still no word on West Hagbourne…
3.  The Bear at Home: One of my favorite travel experiences to date…We are driving at night down a lonely road, completely in the dark…and then we come upon 1 solitary light over a doorway…we walk through and it’s just the coziest little pub in the world with great food and beer…amazing!
On April 8 we decided to take a road trip to visit the nearby city of Oxford.  Now in most cases, people would at this point say, “no, not that Oxford”, however in this case, yes, it was “that” Oxford.  We were both honestly blown away simply by the size and grandeur of the old colleges.  The most impressive one was definitely Christchurch, which, if you are a Harry Potter fan you will also recognize as the yard where Harry learns how to fly his broom in the first movie.
Other than that I would say that the real charm in Oxford is simply to be there and soak in all that history and knowledge…it really makes you feel like you are in a place that has played an important role in history.
I have an idea!'s gone...
 Finally, on our last day in England we decided to take a trip to visit a place I have always wanted to see since my days of listening to Spinal Tap…Stonehenge.  It turned out to be an incredibly rainy day that day, which initially I thought would be a negative.  However, in hindsight, I think that it added to Stonehenge and the experience in general that the weather was, let’s just say…”moody”.  Every story I have ever heard about the place was that it’s stormy and cold and wet etc. etc. and honestly, as a traveler, you have to roll with the punches when the weather is bad…and we did. 
I really enjoyed myself…it’s literally a circle of rocks in a field in the middle of nowhere…but it’s definitely interesting to see. The only downside is that you have to book well ahead and get approval on the official website if you want to enter the actual ring. We had not planned anywhere near that far in advance, so we only got to do the outside loop…still, neat-o!  PS…bring a rain jacket…umbrellas don’t work…
My Favorite Things: I thought I would start this at the end of my trip blog posts.  In this section I will just name my 5 favorite parts of the trip I have just written about.
1.  Monster Munch: Have never seen these “crisps” outside England, but they are seriously addictive.
2.  Easter Dinner: Having a traditional Easter dinner (With a Turkey) is so North American…I loved it!
3.  Pubs: In particular, I will never forget going to “The Bear at Home”, lovely pub, great food; atmosphere was like something out of a novel.
4.  Wandering the streets in Oxford: I almost felt smarter just being there…you really get the sense that it oozes greatness.
5.  A visit to Stonehenge as it was meant to be:  Rainy, windy, cold…kind-of “end of the world,” “hellish” like weather.
London: (I’ve decided I’ll rank London in this post so I can be lazy on future posts…)
Affordability: 4/10, London is not cheap and that exchange rate is a bitch…
Entertainment: 15/10, seriously…I don’t know how long it would take you to run out of things to do there, but I would be happy to try and find out.
Ease of travel: 8/10, The Eurostar is fast and easy…unfortunately, it’s not cheap…
Overall: *10/10, I thought it would be unfair to go above 10 here…but honestly…If I was told I could only ever return to one place I have visited…this would be my choice.

Affordability: 8/10, the £ is still the £, but rural anything tends to be cheaper.
Entertainment: 6/10, not a lot going on, but there is charm for days in this little town.
Ease of travel: 5/10, you’re going to want a car…
Overall: 6/10, I think our experience was unique because of the friends we had there, but still, the experience of rural England is a must do/see, just not necessarily in Didcot.

Affordability: 6.5/10, Things are a bit upscale here…but it is still a student town.
Entertainment: 7/10, I would say it is good for a weekend, but beyond that I think the snootyness of it may get to you.
Ease of travel: 6/10, would be a better ranking if it wasn’t for the cost of those trains…
Overall: 7/10, I loved the experience, but I think you really have to respect the historical and educational significance of the place to enjoy it…if you don’t care for that sort of thing you won’t miss out on much that you can’t find elsewhere.

Affordability: 8/10, still England, but not as much of a cash grab as I thought it would be.
Entertainment: 7/10, It will keep you entertained for 2 hours…no more.
Ease of travel: 4/10, If you don’t have a car, your other option is a bus tour…period.
Overall: *6/10, the star is because I think it is a must see destination…however, once you have seen it…that’s it.

Picture this + rain, wind and cold...oh, and sheep too
There you have it Kids!  Next month will be my first two entry month…1st up Spain…