THis is the first part of my observations on a recent trip to UK.........
My plan was to visit the West Country and then up to Warwickshire and Shakespeare country finally ending up in London for a few nights before flying home.
For the first time ever, I was visiting UK as a tourist. I haven’t lived for an extended period in UK for over a decade and this time the trip had to take in as much as possible in about 2 weeks.
I found myself looking at the UK from a new perspective........ I was forced to re-examine a country I thought I knew so well.....everything is seen differently - from the major tourist attractions to the quirky habits of pubs to the state of public toilets – things I usually take for granted are seen in a new light. Furthermore UK has a reputation as an expensive destination – just how true is this? What would I have to fork out for accommodation, transport, food, sightseeing etc.??
A first for me - I had to book flights, organise transport, hotel rooms etc etc... I have responsibilities...
To start with, my companion needed a UK visa. The visa company’s web site suggested this might take about 5 days – on arriving at the office in Bangkok we were informed that “due to demand” the projected time was now 5 weeks!
We had done 2 things right though – made an appointment on the net before going so there was no need to join a horrendously long queue to hand in documents, and secondly we had all the right documents and some extra ones for good measure....the visa came through in 7 days!
I must say I think it is extremely unfortunate that UK isn’t a signatory to the Schengen treaty as we really didn’t fell like going through the whole process a second time to get the Schengen visa – later we were to regret this.
We then booked the flights....
Getting there..... Flying with Eva air we were upgraded from battery to free-range class...for no apparent reason apart from asking if we could be seated together...just before boarding I was pulled over to one side - my instincts told me to brace for trouble – but instead I was told we were going to be upgraded. The wider seats in economy deluxe and extra leg-room and leg rests make sleeping on the 12 hour trip a more practical possibility. The service remains standard but when you’re asleep it doesn’t really matter.
I’m not sure what other airlines offer this halfway class between economy and business. It usually costs about 250 dollars for the upgrade so those wishing to avoid the crushing experience of flying economy might want to investigate the possibility of flying economy “elite “ with EVA and booking in advance.
So the flight was bearable......food barely edible as always, but I have used EVA a lot now as they are consistently competitively priced and the obvious economy class alternative - Thai air – have got to be one of the worst airlines ever to leave the ground...and it’s amazing they even manage to do that at times!
Arrival at Deathrow was remarkably uneventful too.... – it’s still a rather grimy old place and very daunting for the first time traveller – fortunately the signing is fairly clear and there are plenty of places to stand to one side and collect oneself, get out the right documents etc.....the place s so over worked and worn down, even the new places look worn and shabby, but the huge crowds kept moving and we entered immigration.....two “officials” assured me it would OK to take my companion to the EU immigration desk (I have an EU passport) – on arrival at the counter the immigration official looked a bit miffed and insisted that I was my friends “sponsor” this seemed to appease him and he stamped our passports – the whole process taking only a few minutes ( I don't think my friend's insistence on wearing a mask to protect against H1N1 whilst standing in line was such a good idea though)...on to baggage reclaim and out into the arrivals hall.....push our bags to the car hire counter – the car is ready – the minibus to the depot and out onto the open road........
I can’t believe how quickly we got out of Deathrow - With a few hours of daylight left (good ol’ British daylight saving) we headed away from London towards Wiltshire and Stonehenge; we arrived at Holiday Inn after dark in the rain – it was colder than my friend has ever experienced - I thought that the standard accommodation offered by H.I. would be the least alien to my friend on that first night away from home.
Rather than drive all the way on the first night to Plymouth, where we’ll be based, it seems a good idea to stop off at Stonehenge.
Due to jetlag and the after effects of a long flight, we were up at the crack of dawn and couldn’t sleep – it was a cold wet morning - we packed and drove out to Stonehenge only to find that it was “closed” (until 9 am) – this was all the more aggravating as there is a crowd of people walking round INSIDE the stone circle – “special permission” I’m told. As a teenager I spent a lot of time lying around those stones and I didn’t need special permission to do it….now the number of tourists is so huge it has been fenced off and all the general public can do is walk around the perimeter at a respectful distance. I agree conservation is paramount but I must confess to being a little disappointed at not being able to actually touch those stones and “feel the vibes” again.
We go back into Amesbury and find a “café” for a traditional English breakfast – The Friar Tuck – just about as good as that sort of thing gets. -
On returning, we then are just about the first people in. Walking round the Stones we get us a foretaste of the weather to come – It’s July/August – the height of the British summer and the height of the tourist season and it’s 15 C and a light drizzle falls wafted along on the wind. Not for the last time out comes my anorak. I lend it to my friend making a note to buy another one ASAP.
For details of “special visits”, admission prices etc. look at - http://www.stonehenge-avebury.net/stnhngeinfo.html
At this point it might be worth mentioning that Admission is free to members of English Heritage and the National Trust. If you are a history freak it could save you a lot of money – just check that the places you want to see are under this scheme. You can get free or reduced entrance fees to hundreds of places. Standard adult membership for a year is about 43 pounds (reductions for students and couples). National Trust is about 47 pounds a year.
When it comes to seeing Britain I have to say that it is all about buying discount or membership cards. Admissions and travel costs in the UK can be terrifically high unless you carefully choose the right cards and schemes.
I knew where I wanted to go and for me the NT and EH cards were not the way to go but for some it could save the day.
Transport is another way that cards can save you money. For families –check out - http://www.familyandfriends-railcard.co.uk/are-you-eligible/eligibility
It is also a good idea to get an idea of which cards you might find useful before you travel – there is a bewildering array of discount schemes available to tourists and trying to sort out which ones are good for you can take a lot of time and research. You can also get most of them on-line.
I’ll talk a little more about cards later.
Driving in UK. – This is a surprisingly orderly thing and so long as you drive with precision, should present no real problems.
Drivers from Asia and Europe are used to dealing quickly with strange and varying conditions and usually find themselves easily adapting to driving in the UK ...... Amongst those foriegners driving around the UK, who possibly find themselves the worst off are drivers from the USA. UK driving involves small cars, many of them manual transmission in high density traffic. Road regulations and markings are strictly observed in the UK and the relaxed, casual style of driving in the States is totally unsuited to conditions in the UK. E.g. – if you think you can use cruise control anywhere in the UK you are probably making a serious mistake.....unless it’s to stay within the speed limit.
Beware – there are more speed cameras per mile in the UK than anywhere else in the world – your tickets will be sent in the post and either waiting for you when you return your hire-car of follow you back home. It’s no good thinking that leniency will be granted as an automated camera has little sympathy. You might try it on after you have received your ticket though.
The motorway and dual carriageway speed limit is 70 mph (112 kph) – on other roads it is 60 mph, in built up areas 30 mph.
There are now several other limits (e.g. 20/40/50) both temporary and permanent throughout the country. You will have to keep an eye out for these as they are rigidly enforced. Many road works have “average speed” cameras – so slowing down for one camera is not enough.
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THis is the first part of my observations on a recent trip to UK.........