An Okie in England
By Bobby Neal Winters
I am not a travel expert, though I’ve done my share of traveling recently. It occurred to me that someone like myself with the correct level of ignorance might be the right person to help someone making a first trip to England.
Let me start out with a tip that will work for any international trip. Take a pen on the plane and keep it handy. Also keep your passport handy. They always make you fill out that card declaring whether you’ve been to a farm or are carrying anything interesting. You’ll need you pen and passport number to fill it out. Do it as soon as you can, put the card in your passport, and then forget about it until you go through passport control.
Once you are done with passport control, you’ll want some local money. I’ve always had good luck with cash machines and only rarely do I directly exchange cash. It doesn’t hurt to have some dollars with you just in case (I find $500 is a comforting sume), but this time I only had about $20 American on me. I hit the ATM in Heathrow for 200 pounds and my cash needs were taken care of for the non-London part of the trip. (In London they have shop-vacs at regular intervals to suck money out of your pocket; just saying.)
You’ve got your money. Now your job is to get the hell out of Heathrow, an entirely charmless place. For this, I recommend the Heathrow Express. It’ll take you from Heathrow to Paddingtion Station in 15 minutes. From there, you will need to figure out how to get to your train. Here I am assuming that you don’t plan to stay in London. If you do, that’s great, and I’ll have more to say about London later.
Let me now make an important distinction. There are subway stations and there are railway stations. Yes, I know that subways are trains, but that is not a helpful way of thinking. Think of them as hollow worms that you ride around in underground.
We were headed to York, so we needed to take a train that left King’s Cross Station. To get to King’s Cross we took the underground from Paddington Underground Station to King’s Cross/Saint Pancras Underground Station and then climbed up out of there to got to King’s Cross. If you are tired and hungry by this point, there is a McDonald’s across the street from King’s Cross. No one will look askance at you if you get the Quarter Pounder.
These things all need tickets. You buy the Underground tickets at touchscreen kiosks. Often there will be someone with a day-glo jacket about to help you. We found these folks to be very helpful. Keep your tickets because you need them to leave the station.
I bought my train tickets online ahead of time. I used this link. You don’t buy your tickets directly from this site. It is a frontend for the different railways that serve the different parts of Britain. There is a different company that takes you to York, for example, than the one that takes you to Salisbury. Don’t worry, it all articulates nicely.
I got First Class tickets to take us to York. Best money I spent on the whole trip. We got to sit together as a family and they kept bringing us tea and the various accoutrements that are a part of that wonderful practice. Tea, we discovered, has marvelous regenerative properties, as any fan of Dr. Who would know.
I am not sure that anyone looked at my ticket before we got on the train. There were times when we needed it to get past a turnstile, but there were times when we didn’t. On this first leg, I’d printed off the tickets, but on the rest of the trips, I used my printout to get them from the ticket office or my credit card to have them printed out from a kiosk. (Again, there are helpful agents that will direct you.)
When we arrived at the station in York, we got a cab. My plan had been to walk to the hotel because it looked like walking distance on the map--and it was walking distance--but after traveling for that length of time I, personally, get a little punchy. I would suggest have the address of your hotel ready because they might not know where it is. There are so many bed and breakfasts it is not reasonable for any cab driver to know them all.
Another point is that you will not necessarily be able to navigate there in the way you do here. They give directions in terms of landmarks as opposed to intersections. Also their idea of what is short for walking is at odds with our. They are a nation of walkers. We began to tell each other to “walk like you’re English” whenever we needed to speed up.
Once at our bed and breakfast, we discovered a bus stop which we could use to get to where we needed. In our case, we just headed to the old city of York which is right next to the railway station.
One thing I did that didn’t work out well was to rent a car. I realize now that I was defeated before I began because I didn’t know what I was up against. The problem is NOT driving on the left hand side of the road. It is the road itself. None of the roads were designed with the automobile in mind. It is a system left over from a gentler time when one could come to an intersection and pause to think for a moment. Folks from the middle part of the country with the rural areas we have here have the wrong mental model to begin with.
You could with sufficient planning and forethought do it. I have confidence in you. However, you are on vacation, so act like it. If you want to go to a smaller town you can still get there by train or by bus. One of our more pleasing discoveries on the trip was the town of Knaresborough (nairs burro). It is the home to 14000 souls, but the train stops there. Buses go to other small towns.
It is not America: You don’t have to have a car!
The great thing about bed and breakfasts is they provide breakfast. Take the full breakfast because for all the walking you will be doing you will need it.
Eat in the Pubs, but remember they are not exactly like restaurants. The ones we went to had menus on the table, but you had to go to the bar to place your order. Try the cider. Get a pint of it if you are a man.
Find the tea shops and take tea. As I mentioned earlier, it is wonderfully restorative. And if it has been raining and in the fifties, the hot beverage helps.
If all else fails, there is American-style fast food. McDonalds is almost exactly like here. KFC is trying to go native. Beyond that I can’t say much because we tried to stick with the tea shops and pubs as we were able.
There is a lot to see in York and you don’t need my help to find it.
From York, we went to Stonehenge. This was the most poorly planned part of our trip. You need to buy your ticket ahead for Stonehenge, but we hadn’t. We got lucky because the weather sucked in the early part of the day, so we were able to walk in.
To get there, you go to Salisbury. We took the train from York to London King’s Cross, took the underground to Waterloo Station, and took the train to Salisbury. Salisbury is the place you ought to stay because they’ve got a great cathedral and so forth, but we stayed at the Holiday Inn Stonehenge which is actually in Amesbury. We took a cab out to Stonehenge from there and had a devil of a time getting one back. I think it would be better to stay in Salisbury and take the tour bus that starts from the railway station there.
Okay, let’s talk about London.
London is expensive. The prices would be high even if they were in dollars, but they are in pounds. There were 1.70 dollars to the pound when we were there. We left our bags at Left Luggage at Waterloo Railway Station coming back from Salisbury. This was 10 pounds per bag for the time we left them. We then operated with Waterloo Station as base. It is right next to the London Eye and, in short, right in the middle of everything.
We were lucky and were able to get tickets for the London Eye on the day. I’d been trying for a week to buy them online, but my credit card company had been being difficult. I bought a riverboat tour at the same time. This was a mistake because I also bought a Hop-on, Hop-off tour bus ticket and they include a riverboat tour too.
The London Eye is an icon of the age and there is a nice view from there. It is also important because you can almost always see it and it doesn’t blend in with the other buildings. Keep it in sight and you will never be lost.
It is there on the south bank of the Thames between London Bridge and Westminster Bridge which is a happening place. Quite frankly if you spent the afternoon there it wouldn’t be wasted. There are street performers, cafes, and people from all over the world. We only had half a day in London, so we skipped all of the museums and simply toured it on the Hop-on, Hop-off bus. There is a blue police box right outside the Earl’s Court Underground Station, and we saw it, by gum. It’s about a 20 minute trip on the underground from Waterloo Station. You have to go to Green Court and change lines there.