...she replied as my father brought up the idea of going to England. We were sitting down for lunch at Giorgio's (Dad's favorite restaurant) mulling over some lukewarm bread and butter. "It was something I wanted to do with Pop years ago but I've just lost interest." My heart sank when I heard those words. For as long as I could remember my grandmother has wanted to visit England. For years she pored through Dick Francis novels, transporting herself to the lush green landscapes and stone buildings, to the British racecourses and extravagant affairs, and dreamed of seeing them with her own eyes. She has done a fair amount of traveling through the states in her life, but with the exception of a couple brief trips to Tijuana and Vancouver, she had never left North America.
I decided when I was very young that I would take my grandmother to England someday. Growing up, the prospect of traveling with her was challenging, as she had to take care of my grandfather and could not be away for very long. When my grandfather passed away, the opportunity to take a trip out of the country presented itself. My grandmother still worked with a private school, but her hours were flexible. Incidentally her position with the school was discontinued, forcing her and a few others to retire. I managed to accumulate enough airline miles last year to cover a round trip ticket to the UK, and had enough money coming in to justify the trip.
It seemed however that the opportunity had passed.
Our food came and I silently worked my way through the plate of chicken and steamed vegetables in front of me. My head was down, eyes rarely leaving the food, as the conversation moved on. My grandmother practically raised me- I knew how she was when her mind was made up. She has a difficult time letting people do things for her, and generally doesn't want to be the the center of attention. I wasn't going to press the issue any further. She could tell something was wrong, and shortly after my Dad got up to use the restroom she asked me what was the matter.
I explained my feelings, how this was something I have wanted to do for her since I was young, how the opportunity was at hand and I had the miles for her ticket, that we had people lined up to feed the cat and take care of the turtle and keep an eye on the house. I told her how crushing it was to hear that she no longer had any interest in seeing the place she had dreamed about for so long.
Her expression changed in a way only possible as a result of an unhappy grandchild. "Well how long are you thinking?" she asked. "Would we have to rent a car?" I lit up. I had already freed up my calendar between May and June, and went through the possible dates with her. She changed her mind.
I was ecstatic.
My mom insisted on seeing us off to the UK, so she was to drive my grandmother, girlfriend and me to the airport. My grandmother came to the house shortly before noon, I made breakfast while finishing my last minute packing and we were off. Thankfully our flight to Heathrow connected in Dallas so we didn't have to deal with going through an international terminal.
We arrived at San Jose International airport and said our goodbyes. I sat and loaded up my UK phone with apps while my grandmother started into a large book of crossword puzzles. The excitement was starting to set in. My grandmother is typically reserved when showing excitement or strong emotions, save certain occasions. Granted there is nothing particularly novel about air travel or sitting in an airport, but I knew that the closer we were to leaving the country and seeing the Atlantic ocean the more excited she would get.
Our flight to Dallas was quick and we had a long enough layover to grab a bite to eat. I spoke to a few friends on the phone who called to wish us safe travels, and we boarded our flight. My grandmother and I were off to England.
I've mentioned in the past that Virgin is the way to fly international- and I still stand by that statement. This trip was booked on miles through American so we flew with them (and I generally recommend them for any domestic flights) but the leg room was not great.
We arrived at Heathrow International Airport and took the train into Paddington station. From there we got our Oyster cards (London metro) and rode the tube towards Canary Wharf where our hotel was located. No London experience is complete without traveling via underground. This was my grandmother's first trip on the subway.
By this time I was flashing back to my first trip to London and was very happy to be back. London is an expensive city, but it has a character to its people and buildings that I enjoy very much. Paddington station is beautiful (large hubs in the UK are generally very impressive buildings, worth checking out) and my grandmother's excitement was beginning to really show.
A word of advice to anyone traveling through the UK- I can't recommend BritRail highly enough. You can pay for one pass with a set number of consecutive travel days and it works on just about every overground train in the UK.
As we were headed towards the platform we unfortunately encountered a very rude escalator that tripped my grandmother as she was coming off of it. Thankfully she fell onto her luggage and wasn't hurt other than a nasty looking scratch. For anyone else this could have been considered a rough start to a trip, but she was a trooper even at 85.
My grandmother is afraid of escalators after falling down one when she was very young. Due to blindness in one eye her depth perception is very limited, which can make things involving balance tricky. Practically every rail station involves an escalator in some form so we had to be careful- although we later found out that most stations also had elevators going to and from the platform.
We arrived in the Docklands at our hotel- a very modern bed & breakfast nestled against a small waterway. Our room was small, but the beds were comfortable and it had a decent view. The hotel had some very interesting decor and a modern, trendy feel characteristic of many traveler's hostels I have visited in London before. Our bathroom door doubled as the shower door, which my Grandmother thought was neat.
Canary Wharf is roughly 30 minutes away from central London by train- far enough that the price on the room wasn't absurd, and close enough that we could get closer to the action without spending ages on a train. Royal Victoria station was a short walk from the hotel, which made it very convenient to get to and from places.
We decided to take the tube into central and walk around a bit, and I figured that Tower Bridge would be a good starting point. The sun was just starting to set and there weren't too many people out and about. London has several bridges crossing the Thames, each with their own unique character. As we got of our train and walked towards the bridge, my grandmother was impressed by the stonework and ornate architecture all around. She was particularly stricken by the contrast of new and old buildings in the same close vicinity. London is very interesting in this respect- it is not uncommon to see a several hundred year old building still standing, with a brand new development erected right next to it. The combination of new and old characterizes London- a preservation of history and architecture amidst a bustling metropolis highly representative of a modern (even post modern) civilization.
She was also excited about the flowers, many of which she had never seen before.
We walked across the bridge and I think the trip really set in for my grandmother. "I'm walking along the River Thames," she said to herself. This was one of the first moments that made the entire trip worth it for me. The sun had set and dusk fell upon the city. My grandmother stopped and looked out at the water for while, taking in the scene in front of her.
Showing someone a new place is always a good feeling, but this was something more for me. Standing on the Tower Bridge was further away from home than my grandmother has been in her entire life, and viewing the Thames was something she had only imagined. When I travel, I often stop and reflect on where I am standing relative to the rest of the world. It can be easy to forget that you are on the other side of the globe when you are walking around, even in a new city or environment. For my entire life up until this point, the time I spent with my grandmother was within a 60 mile radius of the same spot on the globe, and now here we were standing nearly 4000 miles away from there.
We stopped to grab a pint at Blackfriar's on the way back to our hotel. A pint in England is possibly the most refreshing beverage on Earth, especially after a long day of travel. Travel days are tough because you rarely have the energy (or time) to squeeze a whole day's worth of activity in. Getting sleep is important- we had a long trip ahead of us.
I had planned to wake up around 8am to get an early start, but the sun had other plans for me. I woke up around 4:30am and it was bright out, so I shut the curtains and went back to sleep. We woke up at 11. Oops!
We rode the train into Westminster to get our touristy stuff out of the way. From Westminster station you are close to many of the quintessential London sights- Big Ben, the houses of Parliament, Westminster abbey, you name it. I typically try to avoid tourist traps as much as possible as they impede your ability to see a place honestly- you see tourists instead of locals, the food is more expensive, and the experience feels less genuine. The trade off is that skipping tourist traps usually means you miss seeing the most well known historical sights.
From the moment you walk out of Westminster station you are assaulted by a crowd of tourists, selfie sticks, and camera shutters. Big Ben is also directly in front of you- a secondary observation unfortunately. We fought through the crowd and walked down the street looking for some food. We decided to head towards Westminster abbey, and made a friend on the way. Conveniently enough there was also a (mostly) unobstructed view of Big Ben, and no crowd of people!
After some walking we found a cafe inside Westminster Abbey and sat down for brunch. We decided it would be worthwhile to check out the inside of the abbey afterwards, as I had never seen it and it seemed like something my grandmother would enjoy. Religion has been a big part of my grandmother's life for as long as I have been alive, and the cathedrals here are among the most beautiful structures in the world.
The inside of Westminster Abbey is impressive to say the least. History is preserved in the walls, on the floor, on the ceilings, and in the corridors surrounding the cathedral. It seems the British revere their dead very highly, as well as using art installations to preserve the memory and honor of people before us.
My grandmother was in awe.
On the way to see Buckingham Palace we took a slight detour near the London Eye. There was a good amount of construction going on around the city, including restoration on several of the larger destinations (Westminster Abbey, Houses of Parliament). I decided to walk my grandmother through some of my favorite spots in Central- the skatepark on the Thames and Leake Street.
Central London is a very clean city, and it is extremely rare to see graffiti on the buildings. These two spots are some of the only places where you will see street art and murals in central. As you leave the city centers, tags and murals are more common.
We took an uber into Soho to do some shopping and then took the tube towards Buckingham palace. I recommend getting off at Green Park and walking around there on the way to the palace- it is very lush and a good place to enjoy the sunlight (if you happen to find any in England).
As we arrived at the palace, the first thing we noticed was the flag. The tragedy in Manchester happened the day before we set off for England, and the police / military presence was heightened everywhere we looked. The flag was flown at half mast to mourn the lives lost only a few days prior. The world can be a frightening place, but what is more disturbing to me is how normal these types of events are becoming. The general populace seemed unfazed by the event- at least in the capacity of resuming normal life and normal activities in wake of such an event. It is important to not let these types of things resign you to fear and paranoia, as that is the intention of the people responsible.
It was certainly an interesting time to be in England.
After a long day of walking and exploring we decided to find a place to eat. Gastropubs are common in the UK and generally serve really good food. We found a spot with a nice upstairs seating area and had lamb with potatoes. It was fantastic.
We walked to the tube station and headed back to the hotel. By this point in the day my grandmother was as tired as me taking her photo as she was from walking (she doesn't like having her picture taken).
Edinburgh was our next destination, so we packed our bags early and headed down for breakfast before leaving the Good Hotel. Incidentally, Good Hotel also had a good (great!) breakfast buffet, which made me very happy. Most English breakfasts will come with one or two eggs- I generally eat 4 or 5 each morning, so having a buffet was a treat. This hotel breakfast actually stood out to me as one of the best I've had- they had everything from a variety of fruit to guacamole, vegetables, different juices, different tea, oatmeal, fresh bread, pastries, everything.
A good breakfast is instrumental to a good day, and we had a fair amount of travel ahead of us.
There is certainly a lot of things to do in London, but the city really shines as a destination if you are there to shop or experience the nightlife. We could have stuck around and seen more museums, galleries, and historical buildings, but decided that going up north into Scotland would be fun. Edinburgh is one of my favorite places in the UK as there is a lot going on, and the people are very friendly.
We called an Uber to bring us to King's Cross / St. Pancras, one of the larger stations in London. Our BritRail pass would let us get on any of the Virgin Trains departing from there and traveling north into Scotland. Coming from California I can really appreciate the value of good public transportation options, as it is an extremely efficient way to travel and very affordable if planned properly. There were trains running all day to and from Edinburgh, which allowed us to be flexible with our schedule.
The train to Edinburgh Waverly was packed. People who had purchased seats were forced to stand in the aisles and in the connections between cars, and I was worried we would have to stand for the journey. My grandmother was tired from walking and carrying her bags, and was getting lightheaded from standing. A couple of passengers offered their seat to her, and she was able to sit down. The kindness and helpfulness we experienced all throughout this trip was overwhelming, and I am very grateful for that.
I gained a lot of perspective traveling with my grandmother. When you travel with someone for an extended period of time, you generally see a more complete version of them- how they act, how they respond to stress / tiredness, and what makes them comfortable or uncomfortable. I have experienced this many times while touring, and at the end you have a much clearer image of who someone is. My grandmother practically raised me- I saw her practically every day while I was growing up. As I have gotten older we have spent less time together, and I've only seen glimpses of what she is like as she ages. Her age is one of the more distinctive things I noticed through these travels. For 85 she is in fantastic shape, and the fact that she was up for this trip speaks volumes. However, I noticed things about my grandmother that I had never seen in her before, and really became aware of her limits and abilities at this point in her life. As she put it, "my brain says 'yes let's go' and body says 'no.'"
The continued success of this trip would not have been possible without the kindness of strangers, and other accommodations available throughout the UK, and for that I am thankful.
On another note, traveling through the UK by train is a great way to experience the landscape. There is a great deal of farmland and small towns on the way to Scotland from London, and the country is perpetually lush and green due to the weather.
Our train arrived at Edinburgh Waverly early in the afternoon. I called an uber and we walked out of the station, only to find that we needed to walk all the way around the station to a pickup point. I found that the less we had to walk around with luggage, the more energy my grandmother had the rest of the day by a considerable amount. Uber's ability (or inability) to pick people up from certain areas continues to be a point of frustration while traveling- a trivial problem compared to not having the service at all.
We arrived at our hotel in Edinburgh, and were pleasantly surprised to find that it more closely resembled an apartment than a hotel room. We had a living room, kitchen, and bedroom with a large window. My sleep schedule had not improved very much since being in the UK, so I hit the bed for a much needed nap.
After we both got some sleep we decided to poke around Edinburgh and find a bite to eat. Grassmarket street has a bunch of pubs, restaurants and shops, and was a short walk away from where we were staying. Walking around Edinburgh is a novelty in itself as practically all of the buildings are built in a similar, ornate fashion. Edinburgh castle can also be seen above the rooftops.
We stepped into a pub to grab a pint (essential) and found that the kitchen was closed. Bummer. Upon walking down Grassmarket a ways, we came across a pub called 'The Last Drop.' Supposedly this was the oldest pub in Edinburgh, and we decided this would be a good place to eat if not only to say we had dinner at the oldest pub in Edinburgh.
The last time I was in Scotland I did not find the opportunity to try haggis. If you aren't familiar, haggis is a pudding (more like a meatloaf in my opinion) comprised of sheep's pluck, oatmeal, onion, and spices. Sheep's pluck includes liver, heart, stomach, lung, and other delicious (read: disgusting) sounding parts of the animal. I decided to be brave and order the haggis appetizer, and what the waitress brought to the table was very pleasantly surprising. In America when you hear about haggis, you typically hear "animal organs" or something disturbing, but what was presented was a potato and gourd mash with an egg of ground meat and some kind of sauce. I would absolutely order it again- it tasted like a rich meatloaf and had a very similar texture.
After our meal I decided to take my grandmother to one of my favorite spots in Edinburgh- The Jazz Bar. Edinburgh is a bit of a college playground with respect to the nightlife, with lots of pubs and clubs all throughout the city. My grandmother and I both share a love for jazz, and this seemed to be the place to go.
Shortly after we sat down, a man offered to buy us drinks and began chatting us up. Not long after that a woman sitting near us joined in on the conversation, followed by her friend. Before we knew it, there was a small group of us enjoying drinks, laughs, and good company.
The main reason I love Scotland is because of the people that live there. My first experience in Scotland was similar to this- not 30 minutes after I stepped outside I had someone showing me around the local pubs. I was in Edinburgh for the Fringe Festival in 2015, so there was a lot to take in. Everybody I met while in Scotland was super friendly and outgoing- a refreshing change of scenery from living in California.
The next day we woke up to the smell of bacon, and set out to explore Edinburgh until we found where it was coming from.
Unfortunately we didn't find it, but came across a spot for coffee and breakfast anyway. As we walked around my grandmother was impressed by the craftsmanship of the buildings lining the streets of Edinburgh. She was amazed at the quality of the construction, and couldn't imagine the amount of work that must have gone into building them.
Solid color walls are my favorite for portraits.
We decided to check out Edinburgh castle and slowly worked our way over towards the hill. There is so much history around Edinburgh that we just stopped off when we saw something interesting. We checked out a couple churches and poked around a graveyard before calling an uber up to the castle.
The street leading up to the castle entrance is called 'The Royal Mile' and cars are not able to drive up it, so we were dropped off at the bottom. Edinburgh castle was certainly a tourist trap, with a decent sized crowd of people the entire way up towards the castle.
I did not have time to visit Edinburgh castle the last time I was here, so this was a new experience for the both of us. The highest point I reached was Arthur's Seat, but the view from the castle was spectacular. We made it up the hill leading into the castle and found a place to sit.
Hills and stairs took a lot of energy out of my grandmother, so I had to find ways to circumvent them wherever possible. When we sat down, the large staircase to the top of the castle was directly across from us. My grandmother told me that I could go up if I wanted and she would sit there- there was no way she was walking up those stairs. After looking around a bit I found that the terrace spiraled up to the top at a reasonably gentle incline, so after some convincing we walked halfway up the hill to a small museum.
From there we continued up to the top, where the Scottish war memorial was held. The inside loosely resembled a cathedral, and there were many coats of arms, tombs, and memorial statues on the inside. While the British revere their dead, it seems the Scottish revere their warriors and the many battles they took part in, victorious or not.
Standing at the top of the castle and looking out over the wall was an incredible experience. I found myself imagining what it would have been like to be looking out from the castle hundreds of years ago, or being at the top of a castle during a siege or battle.
By the time we had left and were boarding our next train, my grandmother looked up at the castle in disbelief. "I climbed all the way UP THERE?! I can't believe it. We went up THERE."
Our next stop was St. Andrews, the birthplace of golf. St. Andrews is a small town north of Edinburgh, and has some incredible old structures, churches, and a coastline.
I've said it before, traveling by train is as much a practical means as an enjoyable one. The scenery in the UK is gorgeous, and can be easily appreciated while traveling by train. Train rides are also a valuable time to catch up on sleep, get some work done, edit photos, you name it. When I was commuting to and from San Francisco (an hour each way, not fun) I would have loved to have a viable means of taking a train. The trains in the Bay Area pale in comparison, not to mention they are rarely on time.
We arrived in St. Andrews and checked into our room at the MacDonald Rusack's hotel. The room was cozy and we took the opportunity to get some rest and warm up before poking around town. It was cloudy (go figure) and a little chilly, but we managed to miss the rain coming in. We walked down towards the coast, where St. Andrews cathedral and the castle are located.
We stepped into the University of St. Andrews to take a look. My grandmother was impressed with the grass; "I wish I could get my grass to look like this," she said. Something about the atmosphere at this place was very humbling. It felt like a very good place to study and learn about the world- if I were a student I would like to come here.
The architecture was incredible, fitting well with the rest of the town.
We continued on towards the cathedral and castle. Both are closed to visitors at night so we just peeked through the fence. It was starting to get chilly and we were both hungry. I deliberately kept us walking around a bit longer than necessary, as I had something special planned.
The first time I was in St. Andrews I had spent the day walking around and looking at the old buildings, walking through the sidestreets and getting acquainted with the place. I decided to go into the castle ruins after hours to get some photos in the rain, and was there until relatively late. As I was leaving I realized I had barely eaten that day, and was starving. It was around 10pm and there were no restaurants open, so I was out of luck. I was cold, damp, and hungry.
I walked back down the street towards my hostel, and about 100 yards ahead of me light poured out of a building. I got closer and read a sign that said "The Criterion Bar: Home of the Cri-Pie." I walked in to a mostly empty pub and sat down at the bar. The bartender asked me what I was having and I ordered a pint and a steak & ale "Cri-Pie." To this day it was the best meal I have ever eaten. The pies were hot, hearty, and very filling. A steak & ale pie with a cold pint rivals the most exquisite food on the planet. I told myself that I would come back to St. Andrews someday and get another Cri-Pie.
As the universe would have it I was back in St. Andrews, but this time with my grandmother. We had been exploring the sidestreets of St. Andrews, exploring the old buildings and churches, and we were cold and hungry. Without explanation I walked us down the street and saw the familiar red trim of the Criterion. We stepped inside a warm pub, this time packed with people watching the Manchester United game. Two men gave us their seats, and within minutes of stepping inside a torrential downpour began, complete with thunder and lightning. One of the defining characteristics of this trip was managing to dodge the bad weather, even if that meant stepping inside at the right moment.
The pie was just like I remembered- a big hearty shepherd's pie with steak, gravy, potatoes, peas and carrots, with a puff pastry crust. This is the absolute perfect meal when you are cold and tired. My grandmother loved it.
She also eats considerably less food than I do, so this time I got to eat one and a half pies.
The next day we decided to explore St. Andrews further, and visit the Botanical Gardens. It was a reasonably long walk to the gardens and that used up a lot of my grandmother's energy, so we had a bit of a slow day ahead of us. On the way we saw a man in a kilt- an essential sight for a complete Scottish experience.
The garden had plant and flower species from all over the world. It was interesting to see a patch of the North American plant species, and feel like I was standing on a patch of home. My grandmother loves flowers, and spotted a lot of species she would like to have at home.
I have never been inside a greenhouse before, and was amazed at the ability to control the temperature and humidity so precisely from room to room. The St. Andrews Botanical Gardens also featured a Butterfly enclosure, so we got to look at various species up close.It was extremely humid and hot inside here to accommodate the butterflies so we could not stay inside very long. The color and symmetry on the wings of some of these creatures are absolutely astounding. This wasn't a particularly 'Scottish' thing to do, it was more just an interesting activity to fill up the day. There are lots of these types of things around that people often overlook. I realized that if I ever felt like I had nothing to do, there was probably 10 things like this garden in a close vicinity to where I live that I could check out.
There didn't seem to be any tourists around the gardens, which served as a reminder that St. Andrews is a place where people live and go about their lives normally. As a tourist it is easy to get wrapped up in the novelty of a new place or an attraction, and forget about the fact that people live their lives in the place you are visiting.
From there we moved onto the cathedral. The last time I was here at night, and could not convince myself to go in (that's how horror movies start). During the day however, it is much more of a historical location and very interesting. The ruins of a massive cathedral are still standing, including one of the towers. There are various tombs and crypts that would have once been underground or indoors, and hints of the original stonework have been preserved.
The age and history of these stone structures make it an amazing thing to behold. I almost feel a connection with the place by touching the stone- it is not often you find structures in America that are older than a couple hundred years. Hundreds of headstones dotted the grounds of the cathedral, many of which including a story or memorial to the person buried.
The view from the top of the tower was incredible- you can see the entirety of St. Andrews and further north along the Scottish coastline. My grandmother did not come up here, as there were more than 150 stairs leading to the top.
I have an affinity for heights- generally speaking they are lesser known or seen vantage points, especially in urban areas where many high places are not open to the public. This is obviously a tourist attraction that is open to the public, but one can still appreciate a place in a different way when seeing it in this way. One of the first things I did when I came to London was to find a place to see the city up high. I happened to make a friend who worked in the Shard, which had a rooftop lounge and a fantastic view of the whole city in all directions.
This tower was the highest point in St. Andrews, and the castle was one of the highest points in Edinburgh. My grandmother does not like heights, almost as much as she doesn't like stairs, so I was one for two on showing her a vantage point like this.
We left St. Andrews by bus and boarded a train headed to Glasgow. I had never been there before, and friends of mine who live in Scotland told me it was more like 'real Scotland.' Glasgow is also located just south of Loch Lomond and the Trossachs National Park, so we decided that would be worth checking out.
My grandmother was not feeling well by the end of our stay in St. Andrews, so we booked two nights in Glasgow so that we had some time to recuperate. While traveling for long periods of time, your body will get run down after a few days and it is important to rest and acclimate. This is especially true if you have not traveled for long periods of time before. I have experienced symptoms of getting a cold or flu while on the road, only to have them go away within 24 hours provided I took it easy.
She was asleep within a few minutes of getting on the train, which worked out nicely.
We arrived in Glasgow and checked into our room at the Fraser Suites Hotel. Incidentally this was our cheapest room so far, and was also the nicest. The beds were comfortable, there were lots of outlets, and we had 2 large windows (with a view of a parking structure, but can't complain). The only downside was a thin ceiling- we could hear every step of people walking around in the room above us.
After a nap we looked for a place to eat online. The closest place that was open was a Russian restaurant/bar right around the corner, so we walked over. We both ordered beef stroganoff and it was fantastic. After a chilly day in St. Andrews and a few hours on the train, a hot meal was perfect.
The following day we took an Uber up towards Loch Lomond. I purchased tickets for a ferry cruise that departed from a pier in Luss- a small town on the southeastern shore of the Loch. We sat down for lunch before walking across town to the ferries; Luss is a very small town and only took around 15 minutes to walk from end to end.
A steward told us that Luss gets nearly 5 million visitors annually, which was impressive. It is a very small town comprised of a few small neighborhoods, a hotel, and some shops. Most of the buildings were made of stone, and there was lush greenery almost everywhere. I was particularly drawn to the small stone walls and the moss growing out of them- it felt very characteristic of Scotland based on my experiences there.
It was cold when we arrived at the docks, with some small hints of rain showing themselves on the wooden slats below us. The highlands were visible across the loch, as well as several small islands. A cloudy day in Scotland is highly typical, and despite the cold the experience felt more authentic that way.
We boarded our ferry and began the 90 minute cruise around Loch Lomond. The captain explained the history of some of the islands we were seeing, as well as various information about Scotland. There were hot drinks for sale on board, and my grandmother bought a hot chocolate to warm up. Being out on the water was very relaxing, and there were some gorgeous views of the highlands throughout the cruise.
It was a bit warmer out on the water, which made sitting on the deck of the ferry very manageable.
Two of the islands were apparently owned by the same family, one of which had a small vacation home on it. Many of the islands were originally used for farming- I can only imagine the tranquility of living on a small island.
We rode the bus and train back into Glasgow and grabbed a bite at Blackfriar's. This would be the second or third pub called 'Blackfriar's' I had seen in the UK- we wondered if they had the same owners or if it was just a popular name. Tomorrow we would be leaving Scotland and heading into Leicester.
My grandmother has always wanted to see a steeplechase race. For those that aren't familiar- it is a race where jockeys and their horses race on a course with various obstacles that the horses jump over. Dick Francis writes about these kinds of races, and was at one point steeplechase jockey for the Queen Mother. We were out of season for normal steeplechase, and the only race I was able to find at first was in Leicester.
While on the train to Leicester, I was able to find a racecourse running steeplechases in a small town called Cartmel in northwestern England. We were already headed south back towards London, but we decided to look at the possibility of going back up north after the races at Leicester.
This was yet another first for me, as I have never been to a horse race. We picked up our tickets from will call and walked onto the concourse during the first or second race. The crowd consisted of people who's ages ranged young to old, and most everyone had a drink in their hand.
The races seemed to be a popular social activity for people, and the culture around betting was very apparent. After getting some food and beer we found a bench to sit and watch the races. This particular race was a straightaway, and the grandstands were right at the finish line. From what my grandmother had read, Leicester was a fairly popular track, and it looked very well maintained. I hadn't realized the tracks were so big, but it makes a lot of sense.
Across the track from us was a helicopter, which took off a couple of times between the races (I'm not sure what for).
After the second to last race we walked over to where the horses were cooled down and the awards were presented. The horses' veins were bulging out all over their body- it was impressive to see these animals up close. My grandmother had been to races before, but not for many years. She looked very excited to be seeing British racehorses up close- it is certainly something she had spent a lot of time reading about.
During the last race I called around hotels in Cartmel for the steeplechase race the following day. I called 5 or 6 hotels to no avail, and was about to give up. The Grange Hotel came up when I expanded the search radius by a few miles, and I decided to give them a call. They had rooms available for a decent price, and it was a short cab ride away from the racecourse. I was very glad to have found a steeplechase race that was running- it was one of the things my grandmother talked the most about.
We headed back to our hotel and had an Italian dinner at the hotel restaurant. The chef who owned the place had photos of himself lining the walls, which was interesting.
The food was good, but I was most impressed by their garlic spinach. It was one of the most delicious things I have ever eaten.
After dinner we spent some time at the hotel bar before my grandmother went to bed. The two bartenders went to university in Leicester, and talked about how they had always wanted to visit the US. We talked about travel, music, and weather for a while before I went back up to the room. One of my favorite things to do while traveling is talking to locals- you form a much more intimate connection with a place that way.
We headed back to Leicester station in the morning and grabbed coffee, and then boarded our train back up north towards Cartmel. We took virtually the same route we were just on, but changed trains to head west.
When we arrived at our station, maps indicated that the hotel was just across the street. The hotel was in Grange-over-sands- a small coastal town in the northwest part of England. We had expected a small motel, given the price of the room and the size of the town we were in. What we found however was a large manor surrounded by trees, nestled in the hills looking over the town. As we walked up towards the building, we saw the terrace in front with some small tables and chairs, benches, and a fountain. I had no idea we booked a room at such a magnificent place, and it came as a very pleasant surprise.
We arrived at the Grange Hotel before check in time, so we stored our luggage in the office and walked around the hotel. The Grange has been in operation for more than 150 years, and was beautifully ornate everywhere you looked. The hotel served Tea (the meal), and we decided that would be a proper addition to our trip through England.
One of the hotel's staff brought us some cushions for the chairs and we sat down in the terrace. We were previously told that thunderstorms and rain were expected all over England, but somehow we managed to arrive during the 2 days of blue skies. Finding this hotel was truly serendipitous- I don't think I could have planned for this.
The waiter brought us our tea and some freshly baked scones, as well as club sandwiches. This was my first experience with proper British Teatime, and it was fantastic. The environment we were in added so much to the meal and made it very memorable.
We admired the stonework of the hotel, as well as the flowers and greenery covering the walls. There was a small gazebo nestled in the trees a short walk away, and my grandmother sat down to read after our tea.
It must have been a stroke of luck that we didn't encounter any tourists here, but I'm not sure that Grange-over-sands is a particularly well known tourist destination. After a bit of rest we were headed into Cartmel, which was a 3mile cab ride away.
The town of Cartmel is very small, but contains a racecourse as well as a priory. Our cab driver suggested we stop into the priory as it had a lot of history, so we stepped in.
The Cartmel priory has been in operation for over 600 years, and rivaled the grandeur of some of the more well known cathedrals we had visited so far.
There were substantially more people at this race than at Leicester, and the event was laid out almost like a county fair. There were lots of vendors, food tents, and live music. We bought our tickets and walked onto the concourse shortly before the first race started. The grandstands didn't have any seats, and it looked like benches / tables were scarce. My grandmother found a bench and sat down while I looked for somewhere to buy chairs. We ended up renting two chairs and posting up at one of the corners where the horses were jumping. The weather was warm and there was a lot of activity around this race, which was energizing.
Watching horses jump over these hurdles was a sight to behold, and it was evident how much more physically demanding and dangerous the steeplechase was for the jockeys. My grandmother and I decided not to bet, but she picked the winning horse just about every race.
I think this was one of the more exciting days for her, as seeing a steeplechase was something she has wanted to do for a long time. While the race was out of season, she got to witness jockeys running a race in a similar way that Dick Francis would have. I made it a point to ask some regulars where the best tracks in England were, and aim to bring my grandmother back next year for a more significant race.
After the races we called a cab back into Grange-over-sands, and managed to get a better look at the town this time. It really is a quiet coastal town comprised of a very small downtown, and some small suburbs. The landscape was beautiful.
We checked into our room once we got back and decided to take a look at the dinner menu. The Carriages Restaurant was downstairs, and had some delectable looking meals.
We went downstairs to order a drink and I happened to strike up a conversation with an older gentleman at the bar. As it turns out, he was part owner of one of the horses that won that day, and he was very excited about that. My grandmother overheard us talking about it and was equally excited, as it was one of the horses she had picked. I could tell she was excited about talking to the owner of a winning horse, and they had a very pleasant exchange before he was headed to dinner.
We reserved a table at the Carriages Restaurant without realizing we were in for a very special treat.
As it turns out, the Carriages was a fine dining experience featuring a 5 course meal (the kind with separate silverware for each course). The man with the winning horse had reserved a table as well.
The dining room was very elegant, and the food was incredible. Our experience at the Grange Hotel made us feel like British royalty, and the fact that it was completely unexpected made it so much more special. I will definitely be returning here someday.
We said our goodbyes to the hotel staff, and the beautiful building we spent the night in. I had a friend in Manchester who wanted to link up while I was in the UK, so we decided not to spend another night here as much as we wanted to (it would have also tacked on a very early travel day to the airport).
The last day in England was bittersweet. I managed to link up with a friend in Manchester for lunch, as well as an old friend in London. We did a bit of shopping, took some photos, and I managed to find the kebab spot that saved my life when I was last in London.
This trip was very important to me. I have wanted to help my grandmother realize her dream of seeing England since I was very young. I feel extremely fortunate to have things come together like they did, and this was an experience I will never forget. This trip had its ups and downs, and my grandmother and I saw sides of each other that we had not seen before.
With that being said, I feel closer to my grandmother than ever, and we were able to create more memories with each other that I am extremely thankful for. I am also immensely proud of the fact that at 85 she was willing to fly to another country and walk around almost nonstop for 10 days. We tried new foods, saw things we had never seen before, and had the pleasure of meeting some very nice people. And by some miracle, we had mostly sunny weather in England.
Travel is good for the soul. It exposes you to new cultures, new ways of life, and people with rich and unique life experiences that they are willing to share. Through travel I have found myself, and it has helped me form the compass that guides me towards realizing my goals and becoming the person I want to be. Sharing that experience with my grandmother is one of my proudest achievements, and I hope to have more opportunities to do so.
Til' next time.