UK, You Take My Breath Away
In early March, my friend Jenn and I spent a wonderful 10 days in the United Kingdom, exploring London, Bath, the Cotswolds and Edinburgh. It was an amazing trip and I am already plotting how I can get back. In the meantime, I’m going to share some experiences and lessons learned, and generally geek out on Anglophilia.
Top moments that took my breath away
1. The Tate Britain—My travel partner’s flight was delayed getting into London, so I took the opportunity to explore on my own. From our hotel near Victoria Station, I walked toward the Thames, and wound my way beside it for a bit, happening upon the Tate Britain art gallery (not to be confused with the Tate Modern). My very first real destination in London didn’t disappoint. It housed, among other things, the oldest full-body portrait of Queen Elizabeth I, and there was a haunting installation of sounds made from musical instruments damaged in war. I wasn’t on this trip for art museums but I was glad I ended up in this one.
2. The London Eye at night—I know that the eye is a tourist trap, but for good reason.As everyone in London seemed eager to share, it was only supposed to be there for a year to celebrate the Millennium. However, it was such a hit that they decided to keep it. We went on Sunday, but waited until dusk; there was no line, and we got to watch night fall on the city from above. What a treat—seeing the lights of London from 443 feet up in the air.
3. Stonehenge and Avebury—I am struggling for the words to describe this experience. We got to Stonehenge right as it opened, picked up our audio guides, and started walking around the stones. In what seemed like an instant, an hour and 15 minutes had passed. It is just … SO … OLD. Nothing standing in America is a fraction as ancient. It makes you feel connected to humanity through the ages; and also intensely curious about moved these people to move these stones, long before the time of Jesus Christ. Avebury was a different experience, but also amazing; much larger; much older; much less in tact. But you can actually walk up to those stones, and imagine how the village they inhabit grew up around them (and also threatened them.) I would go back and do this again in an instant. I treasure the speck of white chalky mud that still sits on my boot from this rainy day visit among the standing stones.
4. The Cotswolds—We visited a few of these villages, and drove through others, on our tour to Stonehenge and Avebury. This is like going back in time to every British period drama you’ve ever loved. Literally, too—many movies and TV shows, from BBC dramas to Harry Potter, have been filmed in places like Lacock because it remains so unchanged from 300 years ago. Just wandering the streets is a treat.
5. The Roman Baths—this highlight of the city of Bath is another must see. To think of Romans enjoying the natural hot springs about 2,000 years ago in this magnificently excavated site conjures images of summer at the neighborhood pool, mixed with a church, with a dash of reality TV thrown into the mix. (Visitors would inscribe curses and offer them to the gods there; of those that have been discovered, most complain about theft, and wish some of the WORST things that could possibly happen to a person on the thief.)
6. Mass at Westminster Abbey—It’s great to take tours of amazing places. It’s even better to experience them as they were meant to be—to hear a symphony in a historic concert hall, or in this case to worship in a sacred space meant just for that. Though we didn’t get to poke around in every nook and cranny, we were able to hear an amazing choir’s voices echoing against its historically infused walls.
7. Holyroodhouse Palace—Castles are awesome. Most of them that you can visit are no longer in use. Hollyroodhouse, however, is different. It is a working palace, home to Queen Elizabeth II when she comes on her annual summer visit to Edinburgh. The palace’s timeline stretches from the early 1500s and King James IV to present day, and was the residence of Mary Queen of Scots for a time. The Abbey ruins adjacent to the palace itself are far older too.
8. The Streets of Edinburgh—This city was simply magical. London is lovely and while it has swaths of ancient Britain, it also has the flavor of any major metropolitan international city. Edinburgh feels like … Scotland. And history. I love the smell of history in the morning. Every street was a postcard. At every turn was yet another breathtaking building, or monument, or mountain.
9. Food. And more Food. England is not known as a culinary destination; but I suspect times have changed as tourists become more demanding and residents become more discerning. Also, if you’re looking for a meal that will warm you up on a cold rainy day, then the UK has EXACTLY what you need.
10. The Tron Market—in 2015, an underused church in the center of Edinburgh was converted into an indoor market for artists. The selection here was amazing; we also met a friendly Scottish artist, Christopher Rutterford, who explained his painting based on Robert Burns’ poem “Tam O’ Shanter,” and I tried an Irn-Bru, a popular Scottish soda. What more could you need? It says a lot that 17th century gothic churches are so run-of-the-mill in Edinburgh that they go unused and get turned into markets.