A Journey Through the Motherland
It's been over seven months since we started this traveling thing, and five of those have been outside of the United States, with our itinerary making England the first English-speaking country we've set foot in since well before Christmas. What a weird thing! I'd gotten a little bit used to there always being a language barrier, but in the UK, we can actually make out other peoples' conversations on the street. We're also much more likely to actually get what we intended to order, and feel like we can ask for directions if needed.
I've learned to feel more comfortable than I started out in countries that don't speak English, but naturally, many things are so much easier when you're somewhere where all the signs are written in the language in which you are fluent. Anyhow, the last week of April was when we made the big leap from Eastern Europe over to the United Kingdom, where we will stay until mid-June when we meet my parents, sister, and her boyfriend in Amsterdam.
We flew Ryanair, a cheap airline that all the budget-travel-blogs recommend. Ryanair is totally hit-or-miss; they don't fly out of or into the same cities every day (or even every week) so it's not always possible to fly through them to your destination when you need to, but when you can, flights can be extremely cheap. Of course, read aaaaalllll the details, because they can make up for the $15 ticket with a $30 "check in fee" if you don't check in online at least 2 hours before your flight, a fee per bag depending on weight (and you are only allowed a very small personal item, no carry-ons), and other hidden costs. We did all the math and determined that even with an extra $40 being spent on our bags, the ticket prices were cheaper than anything else as long as we took the 6:50am flight from Bucharest to London Stansted.
Despite traversing through 8 countries already, this was our first flight since we landed in Paris!
Flights that early are brutal. It was about a 40 minute Uber ride to the airport, and we are anxious fliers who want to allow for the full 3 hours before an international flight. (What we didn't know was that Ryanair doesn't open their bag drop until 2 hours before departure, so we sat in the lobby for an hour at 4 in the morning. Not ideal. I was very grumpy.) However, we cruised through security and easily found our gate, and our flight ended up being short and easy, despite the minimalism on Ryanair aircrafts.
My Uncle Steve picked us up from the airport and took us to his family's lovely, comfortable home in Colchester. Colchester is England's first recorded town, and was once England's capitol, so there's fabulous history there (and a castle). Mostly, we were there to reconnect with my Nana's brother and his family, who I'd last seen probably 10 years ago. We had so much fun with them! They took us to many good pubs, obviously. One was Brook's Red Lion, one of the oldest pubs in England, opening its doors about 30 years before Columbus landed in America. Another was the Purple Dog, which has changed names, but could also compete for the oldest pub in England's first city. We tried flights of beers at a newer, trendy brewery--the craft beer and cocktail culture is picking up similarly to back home.
Dinner our first night in Colchester with the family <3
Colchester Castle in the center of town.
We finally, FINALLY ate some decent Indian food since we left on this trip. That's one thing I've been missing desperately since traveling; we ate Indian quite regularly back home, spoiled with an amazing restaurant down the block, but most of the places we've been on this trip haven't had it available the way we're used to. The people of the UK love a good curry, and there are enough Indian immigrants here for it to be easy to find the good stuff. Of course, we also ate a lot of fish and chips. On our last full day, we were taken to Mersea Island, one of the UK's little land masses that are only accessible when the tide is out, and tried their world famous oysters before our seafood entrees. I don't think I've ever had oysters before, but they were tasty!
My Aunt Mandy also made sure we had some home cooked English dishes, including a modern version of Liverpool Scouse, and a classic full English breakfast. We had a lazy Sunday morning stuffing ourselves with hashbrowns, beans, bacon, toast, tomatoes, sausage, eggs, mushrooms... yum.
Oyster facts I didn't know before, and some of the famous people who eat the Mersea oysters
A fun treat we didn't expect was a visit to the Colchester Zoo with my aunt, my cousin, and her little family. It might be the best zoo I've ever visited. Part of the experience is getting to feed the giraffes and elephants if you manage to get in line at the right time!
I'm so, so grateful for the Loran family's generous hospitality. It's something special to get to spend time with family you haven't seen in so long, and knowing you're cared for all around the world is a true privilege. (I think we'd also forgotten how restful a real family home can be.)
Andrew feeds a giraffe a leaf at the Colchester Zoo.
We were sad to leave Colchester so soon, but we had a Workaway lined up in Wales and wanted to do a little tour of England on our way West. We'd determined Liverpool was our jumping-off point to get to the Welsh town we'd be staying in, but we had a little over a week until we needed to get there, so we looked at a map and a website of cheap bus routes--deciding on a stop in Oxford and then Bristol and Bath on the way.
All the buses passed through London after leaving Colchester, so when it was time to head onwards we gave ourselves a 4.5 hour layover in the big city to wander around. We visited London together in 2017 for a few days, but there was no reason to skip it entirely this time when we were so close! Our biggest concern was London's expensive nature, so besides some cheap takeaway pizza we picked up close to the bus station, we didn't spend a penny (or a pence).
Hello London! We were lucky enough to have seen the inside of the Abbey on our 2017 trip, so we just admired it from the outside this time.
The Tower Bridge.
Our walking route ended up being perfect. From the Victoria Coach Station, we strolled past Westminster Abbey, Big Ben (which is under major restoration, FYI), the London Eye, then followed the river around to the Tower Bridge. We didn't have time to go up inside the Tower (this is the second time we've missed it), but continued on to pass Saint Paul's Cathedral and Buckingham Palace before we were back where we started, flawlessly on time to pick up our bags and make our bus to Oxford. I was actually shocked at how stress-free this visit was!
Andrew was unwilling to pose for photos anymore after he noticed some girls nearby judging him for this pic. Oops.
We picked Oxford as a stop on our route through England, partially because it's on the way to the Bath/Bristol area, but mostly because everyone says it's pretty much Hogwarts. We stayed at the Oxford Backpacker's Hostel, which was close to the city center and quite decent. We were deeply relieved that it was miles ahead of several of the hostels we've been to recently (looking at you, Little Bucharest...) Breakfast was included, which is always a plus! We only booked two nights, giving us one actual day to explore, but we were lucky and our day had gorgeous weather.
Oxford actually surprised me, to be honest. I sort of assumed it was like other University towns; one big campus, and then a normal downtown area and residential zones. I didn't realize that Oxford is actually made up of 38 colleges, all with their own campuses around town, some older and more dramatic than others. Some were free to visit, while others had a small fee. In the center of it all were a few "downtown" streets. The whole city was beautiful and picturesque! Both of us really liked it.
The biggest sight on our list was Christ Church Oxford--one of the most famous campuses, and also home of the inspiration for the Hogwarts Great Hall. The cathedral was closed on the day we went, making our entrance tickets a bit cheaper at 5 pounds each. There were several actual Harry Potter filming locations throughout the colleges, but they cost more money to see, so we didn't go looking for them all this time.
The Great Hall
Instead we strolled some of the walking paths around the meadow and along the river, stopped for a pint at The Head of the River pub, and had lunch in the grass at Trinity College. When we popped into the Trinity College Chapel, a student pianist was playing the song I walked down the aisle to at our wedding in August, which was an unexpected lovely moment. For a pound each, we later got entry up "the Mound" at Oxford Castle, which takes you up above the bustling streets for a quiet little view.
If we'd had more time and a slightly higher budget, perhaps we would have visited more of the colleges and found those Harry Potter spots, but in the end we were quite pleased with how our Oxford visit played out. We got a few pints at a few pubs, and slept okay at the hostel. Next was our bus ride to Bristol, a city Andrew really enjoyed during his England tour when he was 18. I would like to note that the buses have been--though not exactly cheap--extremely easy to use in the UK. Most bus lines have their own apps and the bus stations are well-signed. It's quite a change from the unmarked van we booked over the phone and paid for in cash in Romania (that all of us passengers had to push down a hill to start).
Bristol was, of course, much bigger than Oxford. We had three nights in Bristol, this time in a private room in an Airbnb that our host also lived in. (That bed was amazing.) Apart from the cathedral and the suspension bridge, we weren't terribly concerned with hitting any major sights, so we just walked around for ages. I think that's my favorite way to see a city. Bristol struck me as a very British version of Seattle or Portland. There are historic structures and old English charm, but a lot of new, trendy, artsy stuff going on (think bars built out of shipping containers) and an industrial vibe. One of our favorite parts of Bristol were all the marinas. Set below hills of colorful townhouses, the marinas held a unique array of both sailboats and river boats. You can reach the sea going one direction, and head up the rivers going another.
In love with the Bristol marinas.
Another highlight was Stokes Croft, a neighborhood bursting with street art. There was a massive "red wave" mural Andrew happened upon last time he was here, over 8 years ago, that was his laptop wallpaper for ages when I met him. We were able to find the same mural and take a new picture, and got a pint at a neat little pub across the street. The gallery next door was having an opening for an exhibition that night. It was pouring rain that afternoon, but our spirits couldn't be dampened.
One of our Bristol days was set aside for a visit to Bath to see the Roman bath houses. Again, it was too easy to find a bus, buy a day pass on the app, and catch a ride. Bath was yet another beautiful city that I wish we had more time to explore, but I'm very glad we took a few hours to see the bath houses. It's quite a well setup museum, though a bit pricey (ouch), and we didn't feel rushed. An audioguide is included. I was struck more than anything that the bath houses were basically an ancient version of Therme in Bucharest... because humans have always enjoyed the same things forever. Turns out, there's a Thermae Bath Spa across the way from the museum, if you're feeling inspired after your tour.
A sleepy tour of the Roman Bath Houses
I'm really quite pleased with how we laid out our tour as we made our way over to Wales, but as we were heading on to Liverpool, our energy was draining a bit. We'd "splurged" with our remaining credit card points on an apartment hotel a little outside of town, so we could spend Andrew's 27th birthday somewhere other than a hostel or shared Airbnb, and that was so worth it. We were right near a grocery store and the bus stops, but the place was quiet and had a kitchen and our own bathroom (you know I love my own bathroom!).
A funny, serendipitous surprise: as we got ready to board our bus to Liverpool, another couple in line caught our eye--we recognized them from the bus we took from Oxford to Bristol. They spotted us as we spotted them, and we struck up a conversation. Celena and Floyd are on their own grand adventure; after their tour of UK cities, they are hiking the South West Coast Path for about three months. We swapped our silly and strange travel stories--turns out they've stayed with quite the Airbnb characters--and made plans to have a picnic and see a museum with them. So on Andrew's birthday, we ate our budget lunches in the grass at a park, and then checked out the Merseyside Maritime Museum. (The museum itself was only okay, but a bit depressing. There was an exhibit Floyd was excited about, that sounded like a collection of things UK customs had confiscated from various travelers/smugglers, but it was much drier than expected.) It was after we had parted with our new friends and connected on social media that we learned that Celena and Floyd know my childhood neighbor and close family friend, Kathy! The world is small.
Photo stolen from Celena's Facebook
One of the other Birthday Events was visiting the world famous Cavern Club--a pub that not only the Beatles have played in, but many other massively successful bands and musicians. This was a recommendation from all of my British family, so there was no way we were missing it! It's underground and not very big, but absolutely packed. We paid a cover to get in (definitely smart) but beer prices were totally reasonable. There was a band playing some classics that everybody was dancing to. It's hard to wrap your mind around famous places like that, that can feel so ordinary while you're standing there, but humans that everyone in the world know have also stood in that spot.
You have to trek down a long spiral staircase to get to the Cavern below!
We were on the fence about sitting down at a nice Indian restaurant for Andrew's birthday meal, but after a couple of pints he decided he'd more enjoy ordering takeaway (delivered! Luxury!), drinking prosecco in bed, video calling family and friends back home, and then watching Game of Thrones. (We're only on season 2, but making fast progress.) So that is what we did. And we ordered delivery desserts too, because it's not a birthday without a special dessert! Made extra special by somebody else driving it to your rented apartment!
Apart from Liverpool being famous for the Beatles (and lots of depressing war events we learned about at the museum), it's where a large number of my family are from. My dad, even, was born in the city, and it's where my Nana and her siblings (including Uncle Steve) grew up. We'll go back before we fly to Amsterdam for a day or two to see my Aunt Brenda, who was out of town this time. So part of our tour of Liverpool was finding my Nana's house. Google Maps was pretty close, so we were definitely on the correct street, though we took my picture in front of the wrong house... oops. But the family history there runs deep and strong, so I'm glad I got to set foot in the city.
Aaaaalmost got it right. Not quite.
Ye Cracke is a pub that was one of John Lennon's spots, and we wondered why it was almost completely empty while we were there... turns out Liverpool was in the Champions League match making history and this pub didn't have TVs. My dad is terribly disappointed in our ignorance.
As we were adventuring around European countries with distinctly different food and language and terrain, it was too easy to assume England is almost just like home. In many ways, this is true. But once we were there, we were both delightfully reminded of how different and charming it really is. Now we are settled in at our third Workaway of the trip in a small village near Bangor, Wales. (Though I knew Welsh was its own language, I was startled to see signs I couldn't read again!) We're being trained for a while before our host family goes on vacation to take care of the 10 rescue and foster dogs and 11 cats. It's definitely a relief to be settled somewhere for more than a few days; fast-paced travel really takes it out of you. We'll keep you updated as things develop here! Cheers!
Soaking in that pub culture!