Thursday, October 4, 2007

8 July: Home Again & U.K. Reflections

We told our hosts at the Castle Guest House that we didn’t need a hot breakfast this morning – just a little toast and coffee would be fine. (John wanted to get out of there without any breakfast at all but I told him we were paying for it, after all!) We chowed down as quickly as we could in the slightly creepy basement breakfast room and high-tailed it out of Dover as fast as the E-Class could carry us. We easily made it to the Euro Tunnel terminal, about twenty minutes away, for our 8:30 train to Calais. The return train ride was noneventful. We were very happy to return to normal driving (although I have to admit that for weeks afterwards I kept having “English moments” when I had to ask myself if I was driving on the correct side of the road!) We stopped for gas somewhere in France and went into the shop to buy some snacks. The lady at the register asked me if we were buying gas and without even thinking I said, “Wir haben schon bezahlen.” (“We already paid.”) The lady just laughed – I guess she knew what I meant. It took me another ten seconds or so to come up with “Nous avons payé.” I thought it was interesting how quickly my brain slipped back into German! The drive home to Stuttgart took the expected eight hours, and fortunately was more or less traffic-free.

So our grand British adventure has finally come to an end. We drove upwards of 3,000 kilometers in 17 days, traversing nearly the entire length and breadth of England and Scotland twice and exploring some of the best scenery that the island has to offer. Our favorite locations were Cornwall and Glen Coe, which is rather ironic because I was told by some people that they were too far apart to visit in one trip. But I had my heart set on visiting Tintagel and hiking in the Highlands and I’m so glad we managed to fit them both in. Scotland as a whole will be high on our list of future vacation destinations. The British people were generally friendly and warm, and I was thrilled to finally be able to place the myriad British accents I have heard over the course of my life with their proper geographic region.

With the exception of one or two meals, our dining experiences were quite positive (who hasn’t heard nightmare stories about horrible English food?), albeit dreadfully expensive. I can't sum up our experience without putting in a word of caution to anyone researching B&Bs in Great Britain: they can be fabulous and cheaper than traditional hotels, but we were very surprised by the wildly inconsistent ratings. The differences between the 5-star Elmview and 4-star Castle Guest House were positively shocking. Overall, food and lodging in the U.K. are considerably more expensive than in continental Europe when compared in U.S. dollars. While this wouldn't prevent us from making future trips to the U.K., it's certainly a factor to consider in trip planning.

As for cities and towns, Edinburgh was fabulous, Stirling looked interesting, and we enjoyed York, but we came away with the overall impression of many of the towns we passed through as being rather dreary and run-down. We suppose that this is partly a reflection of the U.K.’s rather turbulent economic past. For this reason I was pleased that I had planned this trip with a focus on scenic drives and countryside – in that respect, we got exactly what we’d hoped for.

I’ll make no bones about it; the driving was definitely tough. We were warned ahead of time that it would be slow going, and I never planned for us to drive more than about 250 miles in a day, which was a wise decision. Between the impossibly narrow roads, ridiculous number of roundabouts, and low speed limits, it really takes a lot longer to get from point A to point B than you might think when looking at a map. And did I mention the speed cameras? Yes, "Big Brother" Britain has a lot of speed cameras. Or rather, they have a lot of signs indicating that there are speed cameras hiding thereabouts. We didn't actually see the cameras very often. The best roads in terms of driving enjoyment were in northern Wales and around Glen Coe (but Scottish drivers really are nuts!). We felt very lucky to have our big, comfortable car with automatic transmission and a navi, which certainly saved us a lot of angst. Driving on the “wrong” side of the car was not a problem (especially when you have a co-driver to watch for oncoming traffic from the right at difficult turns and roundabouts), and we felt it was far better than the alternative of renting an unfamiliar manual transmission car without a navi and driving on the right side of the car for the first time (which means shifting with your left hand). But I have to admit that our giant E-Class with German plates got more than a few funny looks. We couldn't help feeling like we should have a sign in our window that said, "We're Americans!"

In sum, I have finally fulfilled a lifelong dream to visit some of the most famous ancient and medieval sites in Great Britain. The waves crashing on the rocks of Tintagel, the windswept landscape of Stonehenge, the echoing halls of Caernarfon Castle, the mist-shrouded peaks of the Highlands...these are memories I will keep with me forever.

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