We just got back from a 17 day trip to the UK. We had a great time, but there were some things that worked really well, and some things that we would have done differently. Here’s what we did:
Day 1: arrive in London
Day 2: explore London — King’s Cross, Hamley’s, Buckingham Palace, figure out the buses
Day 3: explore London — changing of the guard, play in St. James’ park, Big Ben, Westminster Abbey (exterior only), Tower Bridge
Day 4: train to Oxford, drive to Sherborne, through the Cotswolds, sleep in Stratford-upon-Avon
Day 5: drive to the Lake District
Day 6: explore the Lake District, mostly on foot; hike part of Catbells, have tea
Day 7: explore the Lake District with a “car hike”, play in Lake Buttermere (we had more planned, but this was the day of the flat tire)
Day 8: drive to Lockerbie (was supposed to be, “drive to Oban”, but B got sick, so we bailed and cut out that long drive)
Day 9: drive to Edinburgh (was supposed to be, “drive from Fort William to Mallaig, then drive to Edinburgh”)
Day 10: explore Edinburgh, visit the castle and the ER (not planned!)
Day 11: drive back to England (east coast), visit Alnwick Castle (aka Hogwarts from Harry Potter)
Day 12: drive through the Moors, visit Goathland Station (aka Hogsmeade from Harry Potter), stay in York
Day 13: drive to London, fly to Belfast, drive to Dublin
Day 14: explore Dublin
Day 15: drive to Antrim Coast by way of Belfast
Day 16: explore Antrim Coast and visit the Giant’s Causeway
Day 17: fly home
I’m tired just typing that out (and pretty impressed that I remembered it without having to look it up).
Mostly, the trip was an amazing success. We saw a little bit of England, Scotland and Ireland (both parts). The kids were happy, resilient, and enjoyed most of the trip. Even having two vomiting children (though not at the same time) didn’t take us far off of our schedule and didn’t come close to spoiling the trip (although I did end up having to visit a laundromat in Dublin, which I hadn’t planned on).
London went well. We saw a lot, but only saw a little of each place — we didn’t try to go inside of any of the major sights, just visited the outsides. We went to a few parks, as well, and made sure to stop at the largest toy shop in Britain for some fun for the kids. And we ate a lot of ice cream. I think London would have been a lot harder if we’d had bad weather, but we got really lucky. Even so, I think we probably did too much in too little time (a theme for the trip, really). Also, London wasn’t too much of a novelty for my kids, because they’re used to riding buses, subways, etc., here in Vienna, which otherwise might have been fun in itself.
Taking the train to Oxford meant we didn’t have to drive in London. (And by “we”, I mean Dan. I didn’t drive at all.) The trip to Sherborne was fun (my mom went to school there) and gave us our best taste of the English farm countryside. I wish we had spent the night in that area. The Cotswolds were very pretty, but SO touristy (and we didn’t even go to the villages that were apparently the MOST touristy). We stopped in Stow-on-the-Wold, and had planned a stop in Chipping Camden, which we scrapped because the kids were fed up with being in the car at that point. I do wish we’d seen more of that area, just so we would have a better sense of it.
The Lake District was one of my favorite parts of the trip. Up to that point, it was my favorite place I had ever visited. The place we stayed — Littletown Farm Guest House — is my most favorite place I’ve ever stayed. The hosts were friendly, accommodating and warm, the house was lovely, comfortable, cozy and very clean, the area was stunningly beautiful and very accessible. I loved it, Dan loved it, the kids loved it. The boys had lots of room to run and play, (and playmates!) which was so welcome after the constant “hold my hand while we walk down this busy street” of London and all the confinement in the car. We didn’t explore as much of the Lake District as I’d intended (due to a flat tire halfway through our second day) but what we saw was just fantastic. And the meal we had at the Bridge Inn in Buttermere was probably the best one of the whole trip. It was a truly lovely part of the trip. The only thing I would have changed is that I would have stayed longer.
Then B got sick, and our Scotland plan got rerouted. Our day in Lockerbie was unremarkable, but we really did enjoy Edinburgh. It was a bit of a challenge to find a place to eat, though — most pubs don’t allow children, even if the parents are eating, so we simply couldn’t go to a lot of places. (We actually managed to find two of our favorite restaurants on the whole trip in Edinburgh — The Elephant House and Piemaker — it just took a little more work to find them.)
Another real highlight was our drive down from Edinburgh to Northumberland and our visit to Alnwick Castle. The scenery was unexpectedly stunning — we had a view of the sea almost the entire time. It was fun for me to see the castle (Hogwarts!) but even better to watch the kids really enjoy it. The castle in Edinburgh was interesting, forbidding and steeped in history, but the castle at Alnwick was tons of fun (and full of history, too). This is where B & I took our broomstick flying lesson and where the boys played at being knights fighting dragons. And the whole area was just gorgeous.
By the time we headed down to York, Liam was sick, and we were all getting a bit weary. In fact, after my poorly planned, 11 hour day of travel from York to London to Belfast to Dublin (and being treated, on our arrival, to a recurrence of Liam’s illness) I was kicking myself for not having flown straight from London to Vienna, and cut the vacation short.
We had an enjoyable evening in Dublin, and having been in the Republic of Ireland gave us an interesting counterpoint when we went to explore the north — especially our hour on the Falls Road, which is like a piece of the Republic of Ireland shipped north, and I don’t know that we would have appreciated that as much if we’d skipped Dublin altogether.
The very best piece of the trip, though, came last, in Northern Ireland. I was just in love with the landscape. (We didn’t have the wonderful guest house and hosts that we had in the Lake District, though.) Our first evening in Portrush was fun for the whole family, with some exploring, some playground time and ice cream, but by the second day, the kids were burnt out on all the travel and just wanted to stay in the car. I don’t blame them. It was a BIG trip, and they were troopers, throughout.
In fact, although my kids did brilliantly, and even managed to enjoy themselves for most of the trip, I think we asked too much of them. We simply did too much. Our plan included sleeping in 10 different cities over 16 nights — and 3 of those nights were in London. We spent too much of our time packing and driving, and not nearly enough time relaxing. If I had it to do again, I wouldn’t have planned for more than 2-3 places per week of travel, meaning no more than 6 cities, instead of 10. In fact, I think we would have been best served to have picked 4 cities (London, Keswick, Edinburgh and Portrush) and done anything else we wanted to do from there as a day trip — it would have made the possibility of downtime so much easier. And that’s another thing — we didn’t plan enough downtime, or enough unbounded time, either. There was too much worry about checking out at a particular time, getting somewhere before dark, before they closed, etc. The days we spent without a particular timetable were the most fun: the day spent at the lake in Buttermere, the day at Alnwick Castle (which we’d been on the fence about visiting in the first place), the first day in Portrush where we devoted an entire day to a 2 hour drive and just took our time. I know better, but I didn’t plan enough time to relax.
I was too busy, too. I like recording our travels, and keeping our friends and family up to date on what we’re doing, but I should have given myself a break. I was up until midnight (or later) every night sending pictures, blogging, and posting to Facebook. I was looking forward to getting to bed early a few nights, or spending the evening reading, and I didn’t do that — I should have made taking that time for myself more of a priority. These things are fun for me, and kind of a hobby, but I also consider them a kind of obligation, and as such, I should have taken a break, since it was vacation!
But, these are the lessons learned. We had a WONDERFUL trip. As always, I’m impressed and amazed by my kids — by how flexible they are, but how enthusiastic they are, and about what good sports they are. We all loved England and Ireland, and what we saw of Scotland (I really wish we’d seen more — next time). And there will be a next time, no question. I’ve discovered my new favorite vacation destination. (And next time, I’ll have a different plan.)