We just got back from 12 days in London, Paris and Yorkshire with our teen daughters. Thank you, everyone, who gave us advice on this trip!
The things we learned -- there will be confusion all along no matter what you do, and you ought to budget for huge mistakes of both time and money. Once you accept that, and expect technology to fail you, your trip will be filled with pleasant surprises, and you'll have a great time no matter what (and we did!).
Our biggest mistakes:
1. We weren't sure whether our cell phones would work, and by the time we knew for sure, it was too late to do anything about it. This meant no way to make phone calls other than from pay phones. NOT good.
2. My career had taken an insanely busy turn over the summer which meant I'd had almost zero time to plan this vacation. I had hoped to do the rest of my research on the plane or once we got to Europe. BAD idea. With no phone, and additionally shaky WiFi connections at best (when we were able to find any signal at all), I was not able to finish planning the trip. This had very bad results. Being spontaneous is one thing, but being stranded with a family is entirely another. We missed out on some significant good things.
3. Husband had *thought* he'd be up to driving in England, but at the last minute he decided he wasn't comfortable with it. This was another bad turn because it left us in Yorkshire with no transportation except our own two feet ... and while Yorkshire is a lovely place to hike, there's only so far you can get by foot (and the small town where we stayed only had coach trips come through once a week, not on any of the days we were there). Between this change, and my zero planning time, we missed out on the pony-trekking I'd promised my daughter all summer long, and we did not hike into any remote, protected or really natural areas at all. Huge disappointments for all of us. Lesson learned -- always have a back-up plan! Always, always, always.
So with those big disclaimers, here's how we still had a GREAT family vacation.
Day 1 -- arrival in London
Flight was uneventful, arrived about 11am at LHR. We were a bit befuddled at the airport about how to get to Victoria Station, and confused again about the 7-day Travelcard process (wish I would have taken notes from discussions here!), but we got everything worked out eventually. We visited the Royal Mews and would have visited Buckingham Palace but tours for the day had ended.
So we took the train to our apartment in Purley, which was quite nice and much roomier than anything we could have afforded in a hotel. The girls had their own room (bunkbeds), and the husband and I had our own separate room (full/king bed), nice bathroom, living room downstairs, fully furnished kitchen and our own little backyard, too. We found a wonderful little diner and had breakfast (and often supper) there every day.
The WiFi connection in the apartment was fairly good, and the girls were able to Skype with their friends every night which really added to their experience. I thought at first it was trivial, but it gave them a chance to share what they were going through and talk about what they'd done each day. They even took "their friends" on a tour of the apartment (via little iPod, of course), and showed them what the streets look like, and everything that's different, and what our temporary little home was like. Another day, their band teacher "teleconferenced" them in during the day so they could see what their classmates were studying and share what they'd learned.
So, word to the wise -- don't be too quick to knock the kids' technology.
Day 2 -- London
First thing in the morning, husband's razor died after roughly one second of use, and girls realized their hair appliances (flattener, curler, etc.) all had polarized plugs which would not work in our adapter. Now, these were not big things to me, but they were very big things to the rest of the family. Husband had to give up shaving for a few days 'til he found a place to buy a disposable razor, and the girls had to give up being able to do anything with their hair for the rest of the trip (they'd already had to leave all their hair products at home because they hadn't had a chance to get them in small enough containers). I share this not to make you think we're petty, but only to impress that with teenagers, some things are very, very important, and appreciating their ability to adapt and overcome will go a long way toward a better trip. We heard very few complaints after the first day, but I know it was hard for them.
Anyhow, London Bridge station is a straight shot up from Purley, so that's what we did: London Bridge, Tower of London, Tower Bridge, St. Katherine's Docks, Trafalgar Square, London Eye.
We got back to the apartment about 9:30pm and were thoroughly exhausted. Although the TravelCards made moving around easy, we really wanted to explore on our own two feet as well. We walked sooooo much today!
The girls were skeptical of the Beefeater tour at Tower of London. We stayed for the first part of the tour, but when it lapsed into lists of who had been executed and how, it was a bit much for them. Instead we let them explore on their own, and suddenly the "boring" tour was lasting 2+ hours. One point for the parents.
Day 3 -- Stonehenge
This is one of the days where I wish we wouldn't have been *quite* as independent. I wasn't sure how our BritRail passes would "play" with our TravelCards, and at every rail station we got different advice about which route we had to take and which card/pass we had to use. I had mapped out a 2-hour journey, but was assured that that was NOT possible. Long story short, we got to Stonehenge ... by way of Portsmouth (!) and a SIX-HOUR journey from London. This meant no possibility of a trip to Bath as well, sigh. We took The Stonehenge Tour (red double-decker bus) from the rail station, one of the last trips out of the day, a hop-on hop-off, and looked only at Stonehenge. Incredible experience! Husband was very nervous that we'd get stranded at Salisbury or that our return trip would take as long as our trip there. But nope, return trip took just over 2 hours. Go figure.
We were still amazed by the experience and so, so glad we'd made it. Seriously -- it was worth all the frustrations of the day.
Day 4 -- London
Both girls wanted to do London Dungeon today. I was hesitant but it was a TravelCard discount so gave in ... and it was quite good. There was some educational value, and it really helped put a face on things the girls had just read before in books. Lesson learned -- give in to some of the kids' requests, even if they seem frivolous. Kids have ways of learning from almost anything, and it puts them in a much better mood.
We also did a quick tour of the British Museum and walked around the grounds of Kensington Palace. By the end of all that, we were pretty tired.
Day 5 -- London/Paris
We visited Shakespeare's Globe in the morning. One daughter was impressed and one was determined *not* to be impressed (as sometimes happens). We made her go anyhow. It was a fascinating tour and we really enjoyed it -- or three of us did, anyhow, and the fourth will appreciate it later, I'm sure.
In the afternoon we headed to St. Pancras/Kings Cross to catch the Eurostar train to Paris. And somewhere between here and there, we all realized how much trouble we were headed for. I had not had much time to learn French this summer, and the rest of the family had thought it would not be at all necessary. The first time the girls visited the dining car and came back with all "wrong" stuff, they realized life had changed. Yesssss, most people will speak some English, but that doesn't mean they'll speak *fluent* English, and it doesn't mean they'll understand specific requests or fast-spoken English. It was a big uh-oh moment (one I'd worried was coming at us, but I had not been able to do much about it). Over the next hour, we had some fast French lessons from the book I'd been studying out of over the summer when I'd had time.
The first night in Paris was nearly a disaster. By the time we got off the RER train, it was dark. I couldn't see a single street sign. I couldn't figure out how to ask where the hotel was -- and the only people to ask, at that point, were the homeless people setting up camp in doorways. It was rather traumatic for the girls, who stuck very, very close by our sides all through the ordeal. They were genuinely scared.
Without phones, or technology, or pay phones, or even basic French, we really had no option but to keep reasoning where we were vs. where we needed to be. Paris' occasional street maps were a big help here. After a very tense 90 minutes or so of near-panic in the dark, trying to stay alert and avoid dark alleys, we finally found the place. What a relief!
Day 6 -- Paris
We explored Jardin du Luxembourg which was a marvelous trip. Loved, loved, loved it. We made it through breakfast -- at a very high cost (43 Euros for the four of us, yikes!) -- and struck out to explore some more.
The RER/Metro didn't really make sense to us, so we decided just to explore on foot. And while it was not our original intention, we ended up walking to Notre Dame, then along the Seine (wanted to take a river cruise but couldn't understand the schedules or costs, and our French was too limited to really engage anyone in conversation, so we decided just to walk along the river which was quite nice), then over to the Louvre (which unfortunately was closed that day --> another price paid for lack of research! -- but we did explore the grounds and have a wonderful little lunch, including some of the best ice cream I've ever had in my life), and then all the way over to the Tour Eiffel. Yes, really.
By then we were spent and everyone was worn out, so we caught the RER or the Metro, I still don't know which, which brought us within a few minutes of our hotel. Called it a night.
Day 7 -- Paris
We braved the RER/Metro system again to return to the Louvre, which was spectacular. We were all still worn out from the day before, though, so after the Louvre trip we just returned to the hotel to rest up awhile. Had a light supper -- still having problems communicating with anyone -- and feeling very much the outsiders here. Everyone was polite, if reserved, and certainly no one was rude, but there is a big difference in the level of "enthusiastic helpfulness" between England and France. I'm not leveling criticism at anyone -- after all, we were the ones in their country, not the other way around -- but it was a new experience for us. The girls came across some multilingual kids at a playground who knew German, which was joyous for them --> their German is many thousands of percents better than their French. It was a reminder of how much, as humans, we are driven to communicate with others, and when we are unable to do that, it has a big effect on us.
By now we'd been living mostly off crepes and croissants and coffee and muffins, or things we could point to, and no one was feeling too hot. When we spotted a "Quick" restaurant with a touch-screen for ordering, I admit, we caved! Everyone felt much better after getting something more like a meal in their stomachs, even though we also felt a bit guilty about "Americanizing" the experience.
We had all picked up some French phrases -- mostly, "Good day" and "Good evening" and "I'm sorry, do you speak English, please?" and "Pardon me" and "Thank you," and "Yes" and "You're welcome" -- but it was a fairly big frustration not knowing Entrance from Exit and not being able to understand signs or directions. We were spoken to harshly a few times because we sat in the wrong place or did the wrong thing, because we could not read or understand the rules to know we were breaking them.
We realized it was our own fault, but this was not an enjoyable experience. We should have learned substantially more French, and we paid for our mistake with a much diminished experience.
Day 7 -- Paris/Yorkshire
The next stop was Yorkshire, via what was supposed to be a quick flight. The flight was delayed more than two hours, which put us into Leeds at 5pm instead of 3pm. This was the point where husband decided he really could NOT face driving in England.
So instead of renting a car, we took the bus to the rail station and took the train to Thirsk. Back to "lack of research," I had not had time to figure out how to get to our B&B from the rail station (no WiFi signal, remember, cell phone not working, could not find pay phone). Everyone we asked assured me Thirsk was a "very small" town and everything was very close together and we'd have no problem whatsoever finding our B&B.
Well, not quite.
By the time we made it to Thirsk's rail station (which was deserted), it was close to 9pm and it was nowhere near the main part of town (where we presumed our B&B was). There really weren't any options other than to start walking. We stopped at a pub for directions, and they assured us we were two minutes away.
Thirty minutes later, we realized that couldn't be true. We found a gas station, asked again for a pay phone (none) or directions ... got different directions, this time using public footpaths (which were hard to identify in the dark) ... got lost again ... now roaming the town hoping, bluntly, for some kind of divine intervention.
As luck would have it, a young man was leaving a building and took pity on us. Instead of giving us directions, he walked us right to the door of where we needed to go. We weren't sure the B&B owners would even be up and had already prepared the girls for the possibility of sleeping outside for the night, but thankfully ... YES! after a few minutes the owner answered the door, was beyond gracious, brushed off our near-tearful apologies, showed us to our rooms, offered us hot tea on the spot, and simply could not have been any nicer.
It was one of the sweetest nights of sleep we'd had yet.
Day 8 -- Yorkshire
Great breakfast at the B&B, which was a wonderful start to our day.
Without auto transportation, however, our plans had to change radically. We visited the World of James Herriot which we loved (spent a VERY long time there), explored the town and basically saw as much as we could see on our own two feet. Thirsk and Sowerby have wonderful public footpaths and recreation areas which were just beautiful, and I think we covered about every foot of them.
The town centre is bursting with charm, too, and our B&B owners had recommendations of where to eat which were spot-on.
We spent literally the whole day on our feet -- and as husband and I both commented on, it really is a great way to experience a community. We got lost a lot but everyone was helpful and courteous (and a bit curious), and we always found our way back. The girls stumbled across a couple playgrounds, too, which gave all of us opportunities to chat with other families in the area.
The day was over before we knew it!
Day 9 -- Yorkshire
This was Market Day, something we'd been looking forward to, and it did not disappoint. After people-watching and exploring more of the towns, we returned to the footpaths and little communities of the area. Thirsk and Sowerby have a series of interpretive signs in the community, explaining about the area's history, geography and so on. These are fascinating! I think we found every last one of them. It became a game for all of us.
In the afternoon, we used our rail pass and rode north a few stops to at least get a glimpse of some of the countryside. It was still a bitter disappointment that there was no way to see Sutton Bank or any of the areas we'd read so much about the last 20+ years and had been so looking forward to, but it was our own fault so that was that. We made the best of it.
I did try to arrange for pony-trekking, but without a useable cell phone I had to rely on the pay phone in the town centre, and had to just leave messages. Yes, I should have arranged this weeks and weeks in advance, but from about June onward I was working 14 to 18 hours a day, 7 days a week, and we were lucky I even managed to get plane tickets and overnight accommodations. I had really been depending on email access once we got to Europe to finalize arrangements, and when those logistics evaporated, we were smoked and down to bare-bones plans.
This was another time I'd wished I'd arranged for a guided tour or something, *anything,* that would have enabled a richer experience.
Day 10 -- Yorkshire/London
Last day in Yorkshire and we were due in London by afternoon. We took the morning train to York (so thankful to the B&B owner who kindly gave us a lift to the rail station which saved us a 45-minute hike) and spent a couple very enjoyable hours there. What a beautiful little city!
Then it was back on the train for a fast trip down to London.
In London things got a big complicated again. I hadn't had time to figure out how to get to our hotel. I tried calling and either the phone booths I used were malfunctioning or the phone number was wrong somehow. In the end we just hailed a cab, which earned us instant rock-star status in our daughters' eyes. It was rather expensive, but the cabbie did deliver us right to the door in short order, which was worth quite a bit at that point.
We relaxed, the girls got to swim in the pool and we got ready for our departure the next day.
Day 11 -- departure
LHR, early morning departure, and 14+ hours later, we are home and I'm writing this trip report.
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We just got back from 12 days in London, Paris and Yorkshire with our teen daughters. Thank you, everyone, who gave us advice on this trip!