The plan (and I use the term loosely) was always to fly in to the UK, buy a car and some camping gear, spend a little time in and around London and England and then head over to Europe on a road trip, before returning to do some more UK touring before we fly out. Well (typically for us), after some unexpected illnesses and several changes of mind, we ended up covering a lot more ground than we thought we would in the UK. Over two weeks we travelled from London to the south of England and then on to Scotland, and back through The Lake District and central England, to catch the ferry from Dover to France. We have so many stories from this ‘whirlwind tour’, too many to fit into one blog post, so here’s the run-down of our time in the UK which we will follow up on in the coming weeks with some individual posts of some of the highlights.
We needed wheels, fast! In the morning we attempted to walk from our hostel to the nearest bus stop, but after about 10 minutes on extremely narrow and windy roads we decided it was just too dangerous with all the kids and the pram so we sat in someone’s driveway and called our taxi driver from the night before. Another £30 ($60+ AUD) and 15 minutes later, we were in Dorking. It was here that Peter left us and took off to look at another car.
The bizarre sickness we had all been sharing had come back to me that day, my head was throbbing, it hurt to swallow and I was burning up. It was a very long day………… We walked around the picturesque town, we bought a picnic lunch and I attempted unsuccessfully to get in to see a doctor. The rest of our time was spent in the local library. It had a huge children’s area set up with reading nooks and an extensive selection of books to read. The kids absolutely loved it and it was definitely my saving grace, considering how unwell I was and the fact that Peter returned 3 hours later than he had estimated. By the time the library shut Peter still wasn’t back. We had no choice but to stand around outside the library and wait (we still had no phone or way of being contacted). I looked in the window of every people-mover that went past, hoping desperately that I would see Peter’s face; and then it happened………….a blue Citroen van pulled up and in it was a very happy and relieved Peter! We had our wheels!
Apart from the 5 hours or so it took Peter to catch a train and taxi about 40 miles to inspect and buy the car, then drive back in peak hour traffic, the process of buying the car was relatively simple. We got a great deal by our standards, paying £500 (or just over $1000 AUD) for the van as well as £160 ($330 AUD) for 6 months annual tax (registration). It’s an oldie but a goodie (we hope), a 1999 Citroen Synergy 1.9L Diesel, which is apparently very economical. The petrol prices in the UK are currently around £1.19 (approximately double the price in Australia) and in Europe around 20-30% cheaper than the UK, but despite this, because of the economy of the small diesel engine, getting around 600 miles (1000km) per tank, it will actually cost us less to run than our thirsty V6 people-mover in Australia. The insurance for the car was apparently a bit of a tricky thing to get organised. You need to have a UK address or know someone from the UK who can insure it for you but Pete found his way around that somehow, and he’ll do a post soon with all the details on purchasing a car in the UK.
Over the next two days we purchased three child car seats, two four-man tents, two camp chairs, three air mattresses, five sleeping bags and six pillows. We bought the chairs, sleeping bags, mattresses and pillows at a camping shop and we found the tents and car seats second hand on Gumtree which cost a fraction of what they would have brand new. The whole kit of camping gear and child seats cost us a total of £206 ( about $430 AUD), and we will attempt to re-sell all of it, as well as the car in our last week in England after touring Europe. This is all part of our frugal travelling plans to enable us to maintain long term travel, which is particularly difficult in UK\Europe where costs are high.
To begin our road trip we headed south. Since I was little I had always wanted to visit Brighton Pier and as we were already so close we headed straight there. It was exactly as I had imagined (seen on TV……..). Brighton Pier was opened in 1899 and it’s now an ‘amusement pier’, full of arcade games, carnival rides and cafes. The Pier, all lit up, stretched out over the ocean and as we walked toward it we could hear music playing and see swarms of people walking up and down it. We went to the beach first, surprised to find ourselves walking on pebbles instead of sand. We took our shoes off, but only for a second. It hurt! You couldn’t just run into the water, there was a big drop you had to sort of slide down. We watched as Peter jumped in (for 5 cold seconds) and Elyssa, involuntarily but happily, slid in too getting soaked.
As we walked along the pier we took photos and admired the view of the expansive road lined with holiday apartments looking over the water. We were all so excited to enter the arcade and spent a fair while playing 2 pence games. They were lots of fun and the kids each scored a key-ring. We then walked through to the rides and there it was – The Helter Skelter – a long windy slide wrapping around a ‘lighthouse’. I can’t even remember exactly where I had seen it, TV shows growing up I guess, but it was just one of those things that had stuck in my mind, that I associated with an English Fair, and that I had always wanted to go on. So I did! The thing was probably as old as my Grandmother, and just as unstable………. As I climbed the stairs with Anna, Elyssa and Korey I tried not to look at the old, cracking wood and paint and when it came time to get on with Korey on my lap my heart was actually racing. It felt and looked as though it was going to give way under us. I can barely remember actually going down it, I was so focused on getting to the bottom in one piece. Who would have thought a children’s slide could produce so much adrenalin? The kids enjoyed it and I am happy to be able to say that I have been on it, and survived!
Lucy chose not to go on the Helter Skelter, instead opting for a little tea-cup ride. She was the only kid on it, and watching her going around, sitting so poised, her face beaming, feeling extremely special having it going just for herself, I couldn’t get the smile off my face. It really was priceless! Our visit to Brighton Pier was fairly short but we had a ball and for me it was momentous, adding another tick to my bucket-list! As we continued along the South Coast we stopped for fish and chips at a beautiful stretch of beach lined with various coloured beach huts. A right proper English evening ;)!
The next day we drove to Portsmouth and surrounds, securing the last of our camping gear. We drove inland and had dinner in a beautiful country pub, The Cricketers Inn in Curdridge, South Hampton. The place was lovely with a large grassy area with tables and a little playground out the front, and the owner, an extremely friendly European man, was absolutely besotted with Ben, holding him and kissing his head. He even took Ben (with me following) to his home above the pub to show his wife.
That night we camped for the first time. We arrived at the campsite as it was getting dark and Peter just put up one tent (with the help of some fellow campers who saw him struggling in the diminishing light) and we all cosied up together. Although seven people in a four man tent is not so much cosy as it is cramped!
We travelled to Swanage in Dorset the following day, stopping to do some grocery shopping at Sainsbury’s on the way. I love grocery shopping (yes, I am very strange), and find it very exciting in a different country with all different products. A big part of our long term travel plan is living frugally and shopping for bargains to make a little go a long way and I’d been warned that food is expensive in the UK, and maybe it is for certain things, but I found so many awesome bargains, it was great. I got a 6 pack of chocolate mousse for 18p (about 36 Aussie cents), tomato sauce for 35p (70 cents), 5 pack of jam donuts for 65p ($1.30), 500g ham for 99p ($2), a Terry’s Chocolate Orange for £1 ($2) and the list goes on.
For our second night of camping we set up two tents which was much more comfortable than one. The following morning we learnt a valuable lesson: Don’t have the radio on in the parked car for very long! We had a flat battery! Thankfully a motor-home had parked nearby minutes earlier and the owner, a friendly local of the area, luckily had jumper-leads and was happy to help. After many failed attempts (which of course had me hyper-ventilating) we got started and headed off.
We took a short drive down the road to Corfe Castle, a castle ruin situated on the outskirts of Swanage. Corfe Castle was built by William the Conqueror and dates back to the 11th Century. Deep in history, it was a royal palace and fortress until it was partially demolished in 1646 by order of the royal parliament. Entry was around £20 for a family but we discovered that you can purchase a National Trust family membership for around £100 which allows entry into hundreds of National Trust sites across Great Britain and includes free parking in all of those sites. We thought we’d go with that as we were bound to be visiting quite a few castles and other points of interest and just entry and parking at 3 or 4 places would cost us that much anyway. We also found out that if we had have purchased our membership online before we left Australia, we could have got a tourist membership for around £40 so if you are planning on travelling to the UK soon it’s worth checking out!
This was our first castle visit in the UK for this trip and it did not disappoint. (We did visit Warwick castle which was a highlight of our trip 5 years ago which you can read about here). We toured the ruins, taking photos and reading about and discussing what life would have been like in the castle all those years ago. It was beautiful, fascinating and the views of the neighbouring countryside were breathtaking.
We had originally planned on visiting and camping in Cornwall next but Elyssa had begun feeling unwell the previous night. She had a high temperature and was complaining of a sore throat and tummy ache. We gave her paracetamol and Nurofen which helped temporarily but by the time we left the castle she was feeling pretty lousy. At this point we decided that camping was probably not a good idea as the nights had been quite cold, but as we had left it a bit late to find accommodation (for 7 people, that didn’t cost a ridiculous amount) we made a drastic decision. We would drive to Scotland overnight. The kids could sleep in the car and the traffic would be non-existent. And that’s what we did! Up to that point we hadn’t even decided for certain if we were going to Scotland at all………..
The kids slept, I dozed on and off and Peter kept awake and alert with the help of overpriced service station coffees and energy drinks. We entered into Scotland as the sun was coming up. Elyssa had slept quite well but as she began to wake up she started feeling worse and worse. Her throat was burning, her tummy pains were worsening and then she began vomiting. We monitored her and kept trying to give her fluids but very quickly she got to a point where she couldn’t even keep water down and was screaming in pain. We drove straight to the nearest hospital, about 20kms out of Edinburgh. They saw her straight away and after some tests determined that she had some sort of infection and was dehydrated. They wanted her to stay overnight but their children’s ward was closed and so she would need to be transferred to Edinburgh Childrens Hospital. Peter had left Ben and I with her and taken the other kids to check into a hotel he had quickly found a little out of Edinburgh. The problem was that they wouldn’t allow me to ride with her in an ambulance as I had a baby with me and neither her or myself was happy with her going on her own, so they sent us by taxi. She was given a room in a ward and Peter and the others picked Ben and I up and took us back to the hotel and then Peter went back to the hospital to spend the night with Elyssa. She didn’t like being left on her own for that time but she understood that it was our only option and she was very brave. The nursing staff were wonderful and brought her a portable DVD player to watch movies on and stayed with her for most of the time we were gone. The other kids and I had a very late, supermarket dinner in the hotel room and went to sleep. Still with only one phone between us and no phone in our room, I had no way of knowing how my baby girl was and had a pretty sleepless night worrying. Peter returned to us the next morning with news that Elyssa was doing heaps better and we could all go and pick her up. She had severe tonsillitis, but with antibiotics and paracetamol would be better in no time.
During all of this craziness Peter had managed to secure 3 night’s accommodation at a great price in the Scottish Highlands at a place called The Old School on Loch Awe. We took a quick drive through the city of Edinburgh, parking briefly near Edinburgh Castle for a quick walk around. The area was absolutely beautiful, lots of grand old buildings and even though it was raining pretty heavily it was packed full of tourists. We got drenched taking photos outside the castle, much to Anna’s disgust!
Our drive into and through the Highlands was amazing. It was green and lush everywhere and we drove through some gorgeous little towns. At one point we drove past a magnificent old church called St.Conan’s Kirk near the town of Lochawe, and we just had to turn around and check it out. Even the kids were amazed by its beauty and walked around happily for quite a while. The last 20 odd kms to our accommodation was on very narrow windy roads. Peter drove confidently, loving it. I alternated between closing my eyes and screeching at him to slow down and watch out!
We arrived pretty late at The Old School and were so happy with what we walked into. There were 3 bedrooms, a bathroom, a lounge room and a kitchen/dining room. It wasn’t massive but to us, after the last week, it felt like a mansion. There was even a laundry room which we put to good use.
We all had a huge sleep in the next day and then just hung around, the kids happily playing and watching TV. Our lovely host at The Old School gave us some tips on walks in the area and lent us a map so we headed out in the afternoon for a walk by the loch and off through the woods in search of a waterfall. On the way the kids stopped to pat a friendly cat. Then the friendly cat scratched Lucy. Maybe not so friendly after all…….. It was a great walk, but we never did manage to find the waterfall.
That night we went in search of a pub for dinner. We drove for over half an hour before we found one that was open, and that turned out to be way too pricey for us, so we drove another half an hour to the nearest big town, Oban, a picturesque Scottish town on the west coast. By that time however, nearly everything was closed. We finally found a place that was still open but had to wait for about fifteen minutes for a table we could all fit at. I think our dinner was pretty good, although by the time we ate we were all so ridiculously hungry that anything would have seemed good. It was a nice night though, just on dusk when we headed back to the car around 10pm (it gets dark really late in Summer)and the town and surrounds were really beautiful.
The following day we returned to Oban where we walked around the outside of an old castle (it cost to get in but wasn’t on the National Trust list and there was no way we were forking out more money for castle entry). We enjoyed the walk though and we all trekked down to the nearby sea shore and had a great time skimming stones. We then did a grocery shop before returning to our accommodation for a good, home cooked meal.
We did all of our sorting and packing that night as the following day we planned on getting up early and heading back to Oban to catch a ferry to Tobermory. Tobermory, on The Isle of Mull off the west coast of Scotland, is the setting for the popular children’s television series, Balamory. The Island and town are rich in history and famous for many other things including Tobermory Whisky and abundant sea-life, but really we were just there to look for PC Plum’s station and Miss Hoolies nursery! The 50 minute ferry ride was fun and so picturesque, with rolling green hills as a backdrop to the sparkling blue sea.
The boat took us to Craignure on the island and from the ferry terminal we caught an open top double-decker bus for about another half an hour to the town of Tobermory. As we arrived in the town the kids were so excited to see all the coloured shops and houses and immediately started looking for and pointing out Pocket and Sweet (the red shop) and PC Plum’s Police Station and all of the other buildings they knew so well. The whole town was spectacularly beautiful and we spent a good few hours just walking around, taking photos, looking in shops and having a picnic lunch by the water. Before catching the bus back we bought ice-creams (£1 for 8 from the local supermarket) and had a look through a little museum.
By the time we caught the ferry back and arrived back in Oban it was already late afternoon, We had a room booked in a hostel in The Lakes District which was about 4-5 hours drive away. We drove straight there, eating a picnic dinner in the car on the way. The Lakes District is absolutely beautiful. Apparently………….. It was pitch black by the time we drove through! The next morning, on our way to Wray Castle we drove though some gorgeous little towns, annoyed we had missed out on what would have been a pretty spectacular drive.
Wray Castle was built in 1840 and overlooks Lake Windermere. It is a fully maintained, beautiful building and we gained entry using our National Trust memberships. The place was great and we spent a good four hours there. There was so much to see and do and the kids had an absolute ball (I’m working on a detailed post about this fantastic place that I will put up soon).
The highlight for all of our kids was an area of four Peter Rabbit themed rooms. The rooms are based on the classic tales by Beatrix Potter who was a local of sorts to the area, in that she holidayed there and owned land in the area around the turn of the 20th century. Korey in particular loved this section as each of the rooms was designed to look just like places from Peter Rabbit (one of his all time favourite TV shows) and were packed with things to play with. We had a picnic lunch at some tables right outside the castle entry and before it was time to leave had a quick play at the huge adventure playground they have in the nearby garden. Even after 4 hours we hadn’t seen and done everything but we needed to get going as we had another fairly long drive ahead of us. This time to York, where we camped (in one, way too cosy tent) again.
The following day we visited Goddard’s, the former home of Noel Goddard Terry, the owner of the famous chocolate manufacturer, Terry’s of York and the creator of the Terry’s Chocolate Orange (one of my favourites). This was another National Trust site, so cost us nothing to get in. It was very grand and the huge gardens were beautiful to walk through.
From here we drove to Mirfield, a small town in Yorkshire. This is where my Mum lived from the age of 1-9. We drove to her old house and I took some photos (feeling a little awkward, imagining someone looking out their window and seeing a weirdo taking photos of their house).
After that we had no plans and nothing booked. We drove South, mulling over where to go next. Then Peter made a suggestion – “Let’s just go to Europe now.” So we did! I looked up ferrys on the internet and booked one for that night leaving at 11pm at a cost of £90, one way. We drove solidly for 3 hours all the way to Dover. It was almost dark when we arrived but we did manage to see the famous White Cliffs of Dover as we drove to the ferry terminal. We got there just in time but ended up queuing and waiting for ages as the boat was delayed 1 hour. We were amazed at how busy the ferry terminals were and how many cars were waiting to board our ferry and others nearby. As we drove onto the ferry we saw a lit up sign saying over 60,000 people had crossed the English Channel by ferry that day!
The ferry was packed with people, many stretched out sleeping on seats. I found it pretty odd that so many people felt they needed to sleep (and take up seating other people could be using) for a 1 1/2 hour ferry ride. The kids played in a tiny children’s play area, packed with crazy, over-tired toddlers for a while, before we took a walk around the ferry and had a look outside. With about half an hour left to go, our kids started getting very tired, but with no seating available we found an open section of carpet where they all laid and quickly fell asleep. I met a lovely family from The Netherlands who gave me a seat to sit and feed Ben in and I chatted with them until it was time to disembark.
We had an amazing time in the UK. Even though we saw so much and had some amazing experiences, it definitely was a whirlwind visit and we are looking forward to coming back in a few weeks to explore more of London and surrounds that we missed this time around. The whole country is absolutely beautiful and whether we had 2 weeks or 2 years, there would never be enough time to see it all!